Service requirement is extolled Seize 'opportunity,' students are urged

September 08, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

Leave it to the county's smallest high school to get the biggest name to speak at its opening assembly.

Francis Scott Key High School students heard yesterday from a woman who has been the catalyst for getting a statewide student service requirement. And she credited a former Key teacher for helping to launch the new program.

"I call it service learning," Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, founder and director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance in the State Department of Education, told the students.

"You learn to get involved, and by getting involved you learn more about the subjects you're studying."

For example, she said, a group of Utah middle-schoolers were responsible for getting the state to clean up a toxic waste dump. They learned about chemistry and government while they made a difference in their community, she said.

Ms. Kennedy told the students to ignore those who grumble about the new requirement.

"They are missing a great opportunity to change things," said Ms. Townsend, the oldest daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and a former Democratic candidate for Congress. "Nothing new is ever done without a controversy."

Beginning with this year's ninth-graders, students statewide must perform 75 hours of service by the time they graduate to get their diplomas. The State Board of Education enacted the regulation last year over local school boards' opposition.

Although many Carroll County parents and school board members objected to mandatory student service, many students here already were volunteering for public service through schools, clubs, churches and community agencies.

Key has had a structured and active student volunteer program, and often has been praised throughout the state by Ms. Townsend.

In fact, she said, the origins of the statewide program go back to 1988, when she talked about student service during a debate at Western Maryland College.

Ms. Townsend said that after the debate, she and Lynne Mainzer, then an English teacher at Key, spoke further and told each other, "Let's do this."

Ms. Mainzer has since gone to the Johns Hopkins University, but she and other teachers set up a program at Key in which students tutor others to write well enough to pass the Maryland Functional Writing Test.

Ms. Townsend classified three categories of service. Some students are good at working directly with people, such as tutoring or supporting Special Olympics athletes, she said.

Others might prefer what she called "indirect service," such as working on the environment, that still ends up helping people.

"You help create an atmosphere that's better," she said.

The third category is advocacy.

"You see something wrong, and you change it to make it better," she told the Key students, using the example of a group of Howard County students that started a movement for a county helmet law for bicyclists.

Ms. Townsend said students have the potential to make a real difference in their communities before they graduate.

"It's young people that have more energy and more time than most people," she said. "People who are ninth-graders and 10th-graders can make a difference."

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