No civic service, no diploma Some schools easing requirement so teens can graduate in '97

August 27, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

In the kitchen of a homeless shelter near downtown Baltimore, Mike Hill has been earning school credit by pushing a mop.

The 17-year-old Patterson Park High School senior is among Maryland's 45,000-member Class of 1997, the first required to perform civic and social projects to graduate under a diploma standard adopted in 1993.

Although more than half of the students have completed the requirement -- up to 75 hours in some school systems -- nearly 19,000 seniors are scrambling to line up volunteer jobs and finish projects.

This slow-moving block of students has rattled school officials statewide.

Some school systems are responding to procrastinators with disciplinary action. Others are making the credit easier to earn. Baltimore, for example, has cut its requirement this year from 75 hours to 55 hours.

Several school systems have decided the problem was poor planning or recordkeeping, and are rewriting their policies.

"I think [school systems] are in the process of realizing there needs to be more structure," said Eileen Oickle, chief of the State Education Department's middle and high school branch.

"It's like saying to a kid, 'Go read books.' You may discover that, 'Maybe I should have given this student a reading list, because they need direction to see what they need to read,' " she said.

Increasingly, school districts are packaging civic and social projects as part of regular classwork so students do not have to launch independent or extracurricular projects, state and local school officials said last week. Baltimore City and Baltimore County school systems are among those that have decided programs can't depend on teen initiative.

As classes resume across the region, the new "structure" will be evident:

In a growing number of school systems, student service will be assigned as class projects in math, English, government and other classes, said Julie Ayers, regional and program coordinator with the state office that oversees service learning. High school seniors will be targeted, but more middle schools will do this as well.

For example, a math class might calculate the amount of seed needed to restore a school sports field or nearby park. A business class might raise the money and shop for the seed. A biology class might follow through with planting and upkeep.

To help this year's seniors catch up, Baltimore City and Baltimore County have created public service classes. Pass the class, collect the service hours. The county school system will even offer the class on Saturdays.

In Carroll County, 77 of the 1,565 fourth-year high school students will start school without senior privileges such as prom participation, until they earn a majority of their hours.

Early birds who already have worked off the hours will end up doing even more service because it soon will be part of their classes. So starting this year, many high schools will offer graduation awards for students who perform extra charity work.

The number of goodwill hours needed to graduate will depend on where a student lives. Although the state standard is 75 hours, school systems have been permitted to set lower requirements for the first few years. Baltimore County seniors this year need 75 hours; Carroll County seniors need 60 hours; and Howard County seniors need 40 hours.

For self-motivated students, all of this fuss seems unnecessary. At the Baltimore Zoo last week, Leah Singleton finished up a summer as a volunteer junior keeper.

She's a sophomore at Baltimore's Edmondson-Westside High School, and has completed her service hours in one summer.

"I would have done it anyway, because this is my career choice. I want to be a zoologist," said Singleton, 15. She feels lucky to have a volunteer job she loves, but her peers aren't always impressed, she added.

"The first time I told my friends I was volunteering at the zoo, they said, 'You're a pooper-scooper,' but I do more than clean cages."

Since its adoption, the public-service requirement has withstood scattered protests from students and parents, opposition from teachers unions and some attempts to kill it through proposed legislation. Its integrity now seems to depend on how schools and students will treat it.

"I think the state school board should re-examine whether the mandate is really the most effective way to promote this kind of program or activity," said Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, which represents 47,000 teachers statewide. "The districts trying to do it the way public service was intended seem to be having the most trouble with it."

Some educators are worried that class-based assignments won't as rewarding as self-started volunteering. Also, unions note that just as they predicted, this particular solution puts the burden of devising projects and tracking students on the teachers.

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