The state mandate that wasn't Service learning: Too much discrepancy between localities on volunteerism program.

September 03, 1996

OPPONENTS OF Maryland's mandatory program to have school children serve their communities ridiculed it as a contradiction: "Involuntary volunteerism." Such mockery misses the point.

Would they also say the law compelling kids to attend school constitutes "mandatory thinking?" Besides, courts in other states with "service learning" mandates have ruled such programs are not "indentured servitude."

If there is an inherent contradiction in Maryland's student-service program, it originated with the State Board of Education, which conceived a state mandate but didn't want it to look like one. It allowed local school systems to implement this concept as they saw fit, even if some hadn't a clue how to do so.

Although Maryland's civic service program was the first tried on a statewide scale, early advocates knew what they wanted it to look like: Teens pitching in to make their neighborhoods better. Serving casseroles at soup kitchens. Communing with seniors at nursing homes. Cleaning up polluted streams.

They did not envision a teacher standing in front of a blackboard "teaching" students about volunteerism -- as some uninspired school systems offered. But state officials feared that they couldn't dictate specifics without inciting further opposition. In fact, some legislators still want to kill the initiative.

With the program entering its fourth year, the state board now understands it must monitor school systems more closely. Some laggard localities are also beginning to take this more seriously. But there needs to be more uniformity among the jurisdictions: Baltimore County requires seniors to accrue 75 hours of volunteerism, while "progressive" Howard County requires only about half as much.

For all its fits and starts, this program has grand potential. School is fundamentally about the 3 Rs, but it is also about making an impression on young people and encouraging them to do vital things with their lives. To the extent that this program, like a great teacher, can leave a lifelong impression on a student, it is worth the frustrating effort to launch it.

Pub Date: 9/03/96

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