High school students from Anne Arundel County and across the state came to Annapolis yesterday to defend the graduation requirement that forces them to complete 75 hours of "service learning" to receive their diplomas.
Armed with anecdotes about such activities as organizing school cleanups or writing and printing children's books for a day care center, the students urged members of a House of Delegates committee to keep the community-service requirement intact.
"When I was a freshman, if I had not been forced into service learning, I would not have been involved in it," said Heather Keating, 17, a senior at South River High School. She said a cleanup at her school changed her mind about service learning and that she is still involved in volunteer work, even though she has completed the hours needed for graduation.
"I think that the 75 hours I have spent have been much better spent" than they would have been in traditional classes, Heather said.
Those hours include planning projects, performing the service and following up with "reflection," according to officials in the state Department of Education.
In Anne Arundel County, students earn their hours almost exclusively during class time with projects that are part of their lessons in math, science, English and other subjects.
Del. James E. Rzepkowski, a Glen Burnie Republican, said the requirement takes time from academic courses for projects that he said are often frivolous.
Efforts to repeal the requirement statewide have failed in the past. Rzepkowski's bill this year would allow the Anne Arundel County Board of Education to opt out of the requirement. The bill, which is before the House Ways and Means Committee, is co-sponsored by five other Republicans in the Anne Arundel House delegation.
Rzepkowski said his nephew ended up scraping gum off desks and doing other cleanup work because students in his high school class needed to complete their hours.
The Anne Arundel school board opposes the measure, but its representative yesterday, board member Thomas Florestano, is not a staunch defender of service learning.
"I'm not sure to displace hard-core instruction with this kind of activity is the way to go," he said during the hearing.
Regardless of the merits of service learning, Florestano said, the General Assembly should neither set nor repeal high school graduation requirements. Another state law gives the state Board of Education that power, he said.
In Anne Arundel County, 3,736 of 3,826 high school seniors have completed the hours required for graduation in June, said Eileen Oickle, chief of middle and high school learning in the state Department of Education.
Domino effect feared
A handful of students came from the Eastern Shore to defend the program yesterday, saying that letting Anne Arundel County opt out would cause a domino effect that would eventually kill the requirement statewide.
"If service learning becomes optional, it won't get done," said Richard Grow, 17, a senior at Queen Anne's County High School. He said he and other students might otherwise not participate in service projects.
House committee member James F. Ports Jr. said few projects are fulfilling for students, including his son, a sixth-grader in Baltimore County who is collecting pull tabs from soda cans to earn hours.
"I would venture to say that he isn't learning a whole lot," said Ports, a Republican who represents parts of Baltimore and Baltimore County. Administrators, overwhelmed by planning projects for students, are simply saying, 'Whatever you can do, we'll justify the hours so you can graduate,' " Ports said. "I think the system has become frivolous."
Hope Harrington, chairwoman of the Maryland Student Service Alliance and president of the Talbot County Board of Education, said the state is working with counties and schools to improve the quality of projects.
The first students required to complete the hours graduated last year.
Pub Date: 3/11/98