Service learning's unintended lesson Under the gun: Schools that didn't take state requirement seriously must fix approach.

March 12, 1997

AS MARYLAND'S first high school class required to do community service nears graduation, it appears that in most school systems this novel, controversial mandate is accomplishing what its proponents had hoped.

Young people are doing some admirable work. They are assisting at nursing homes, bagging food for the homeless, helping with scout troops, mentoring younger children, cleaning up streams. Some are merely doing what they have to do to graduate, but others have gone beyond the required 75 hours -- a sign that they have developed a taste for community service that will continue through their adult lives.

Eighty-five percent of Maryland's 43,000 high school seniors have met or are near to meeting the requirement. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says most have fulfilled the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

There have been problems, however, especially in the four largest systems, where educators are scrambling to help thousands of seniors comply with the law before June. In Baltimore City and county, 2,780 seniors (out of 9,362) have not fulfilled the requirement, and most of them have a ways to go.

How did this happen? Some school officials admit they did not stress the requirement because they thought it would be repealed. Mostly, Dr. Grasmick said, the big systems left students to their own devices.

They didn't infuse service into the curriculum, encouraging, say, biology teachers to take classes on stream cleanup projects. They did not offer suggestions for outside activities and follow up to make sure pupils were earning the necessary hours. Now they're rushing to help seniors graduate by stretching the definition of community service to include answering telephones or filing papers in the school office.

From here on, school systems should understand that they cannot merely leave community service to the student's own initiative. Service learning is not volunteerism, but a requirement intended to educate future citizens about civic responsibility.

It is not going to disappear; the State Board of Education reaffirmed its commitment to service learning last month. Initial experience shows it works as long as educators do their jobs and teach it.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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