Schools re-evaluate community service Students scramble to meet requirement

March 18, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Requiring Maryland high schoolers to do volunteer work to graduate was controversial from the start, but even education officials weren't prepared for problems that have followed -- and that have left thousands of students scrambling to meet the mandate.

Now, as graduation day nears for the Class of '97 -- the first subject to the mandate -- educators are taking stock of the requirement, even as they lean on students to finish their 75 hours of service.

Though often considered voluntarism, the community service required of every high school senior is not much different from the algebra or English credits also required of them, teachers and principals have found.

Without structure and a plan -- frequently designed by the schools -- many students made little progress in completing the requirement.

"When it began, it was a bit naive, a bit too unstructured. The school districts started out thinking that all you have to do is say, 'This is what you need to do,' and give out the name of a program -- and maybe a phone number," said Luke Frazier, executive director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance, which oversees the requirement for the state Department of Education.

A wake-up call came last summer when a department survey found that nearly 17,000 of Maryland's 43,100 seniors had not completed the requirement.

Since then, some counties have sprung into action. They have created summer programs and Saturday courses that allow students to accumulate service hours. And they have built service into other courses, such as math and English. Sixth-graders in Baltimore County, for example, study children's literature and read to students at neighboring schools.

Such initiatives have boosted the completion rate.

Still, late last month, about 8,000 of the state's seniors had not finished the requirement, with 384 "not making progress." Baltimore City and Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties had the most laggards.

School officials do not, however, seem worried. They say many of these students are enrolled in service learning courses, although the statistics do not reflect that.

"There's next to nobody who will not graduate because of service learning," said Andrea Bowden, a curriculum supervisor for the city schools and coordinator for the Baltimore Alliance for Student Service.

Maryland is the only state to require student service for high school graduation, and though the mandate still has critics, educators say they see a change in attitude and approach.

"I think a lot of teachers and principals didn't buy into it right away," said Hope Shannon, a teacher and coordinator of service learning at Chesapeake High in eastern Baltimore County. Now, she sees more enthusiasm.

Among students, too.

When Shaun Masters arrived at Chesapeake 16 months ago, he had never heard of Maryland's requirement. Nor was he impressed when a guidance counselor said he would have to put in only 40 hours because he was transferring from New Jersey in the 11th grade.

"I thought it was useless," Masters said of his first impression. "I thought, 'I'll just do the requirement and get it done.' "

He signed up for a school program that pairs students who have completed most of their credits with disabled youngsters who need a hand around school.

New attitude

Now, the senior has 131 service hours -- and a new attitude. "The program I'm in is fun. I've learned to basically take care of others' needs."

Such stories are routine for Shannon, who provides dozens of volunteer opportunities -- in and out of class -- for Chesapeake students. Only 10 seniors have not completed their hours.

Although independent service is permitted, idealism gave way to realism once educators realized how students were lagging in their voluntarism.

Baltimore schools broadened teacher training and put together a "summer of service," allowing students to connect with projects and organizations.

Baltimore County created a one-semester, half-credit course in service learning that it is offering evenings and Saturdays, as well as during the school day. The county also improved communications with students and parents, so that everyone became aware of the requirement.

And most districts are implementing what Dorchester, Cecil and other counties did from the start -- building service learning into the curriculum, beginning in sixth grade.

Many educators say this "infusion" is the answer to service-learning problems.

"Service learning does include context," said Frazier. "If students are going to go to a senior citizen center, they need to know about the aging process and to know about the times a 70-year-old has lived through. It's good to know what it means to have been alive in World War II."

Others say too much infusion will defeat the intent of the requirement, making it difficult for students to distinguish between service and other class projects. Some parents say the infused service takes time away from more basic instruction.

Requirement opposed

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