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Mandating community service: service or servitude?

Controversy simmers as some states try to make community service a high school graduation requirement.

Not since the 1960s, when the boom in community service programs was at its peak, has there been such an interest in the idea of young people giving back to their community and learning through volunteer service. Now, some schools are requiring it for graduation, but not without controversy. A Maryland State Board of Education decision to require community service has met with such opposition that the Maryland General Assembly is expected to try to pass a bill prohibiting it. A bill in the New Jersey Legislature would require high school seniors to complete 15 hours of service. However, opponents of this type of requirement have gone so far as to file a lawsuit claiming it violates the 13th Amendment, which bans involuntary servitude, and the First Amendment, because it forces the students into symbolic speech and imposes values.

The Controversy in Maryland

Maryland schools have offered community service as an elective course since 1985, but last summer Maryland became the first state to make it a high school graduation requirement, prompting the joke: "What do criminals and Maryland high school seniors have in common?" Answer: "They both get out by doing community service."

Despite opposition from 22 of the state's 24 school systems, the Maryland State Board of Education created the new graduation requirement--75 hours of volunteer work over a seven-year period. The new regulation affects students entering 9th grade this fall. Ron Peiffer, director of school and community outreach for the Maryland Department of Education, says local school systems have "a lot of latitude in developing their own service programs." Some are incorporating the requirement into their K-12 learning program and pairing service projects with course material.

Innocuous as the idea of community service may sound, a vocal group of parents and educators objects to the fact that it is mandatory. The Anne Arundel County Board of Education has protested that "required volunteerism is a contradiction in terms." But Peiffer believes some of the opposition is based on misconceptions. "Basically, student service learning is translating book-learning into action," he says.

Although the Maryland Board of Education mandated community service, it made no provision for funds for personnel, teacher training, transportation or record-keeping. The Anne Arundel County Maryland Board of Education says the requirement "carries a high price tag for implementation, monitoring, transportation and scheduling." One source of help could be the National and Community Service Act of 1990, passed by Congress, which provides funding, training and technical aid to states and communities to develop and broaden K-12 community service projects.

Maryland's requirement has strong support from Governor William Donald Schaefer and State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. However, because of vocal opposition from the schools and other groups, the Maryland legislature is expected to try to overturn the state board's regulation this session. Senator Fredrick C. Malkus Jr., sponsor of a bill that would prohibit the state board's community service requirement, says he can't predict the outcome.

"We need to put more emphasis on the basics, like math and science, not on these social programs," he says. Community service programs cause special problems for rural students, he says, who are bussed 30 miles to school. "How can they do community service and then get home?" Malkus says school districts also need better insurance programs for community service. "It's more dangerous than if students stay in school."

Community Service Programs

Some state legislatures, including those of Ohio, Oklahoma and Minnesota, have passed laws that allow school districts to offer credits for community service. Wisconsin allows school districts to make community service a graduation requirement. In fact, for years, many school districts around the country have mandated community service for their students, including districts in Atlanta; Detroit; Springfield, Mass.,; Rye, N.Y., and many others. The Keystone Oaks District in Pittsburgh requires 120 hours of community service. A Gallup poll released in December found that 61 percent of the 1,400 youths (age 12-17) surveyed were doing volunteer work. But more than half of them thought it was wrong to mandate community service in school.

"In Minnesota, we have 324 out of 411 school districts participating in youth service programs, but only three school districts require it. We have over 100,000 kids in school-based youth service programs," said Mary Jo Richardson, of the Minnesota Department of Education. In Minnesota, state and local taxes pay for program coordinators, transportation, supplies and workshops for youth service programs.

Supporters say these programs help build confidence and self-esteem, teach responsibility, help relate classroom learning to real life, provide job training, promote positive attitudes toward adults, help develop complex patterns of thought, teach about people from all walks of life and help students appreciate their community and become better citizens. "Although we don't encourage schools to require it, we do feel that youth service is a good way to show outcome-based learning. So, not only can we teach through service learning, the kids can demonstrate what they've learned," Richardson said.

What do kids do in community service projects? They help the elderly in nursing homes, build access ramps for handicapped people, care for hospital patients, organize activities in day care centers, plant trees, pick up trash, or work in museums, recreation centers, nonprofit organizations and social welfare agencies. Some community service projects take place at the school. "They could work within the school system itself. That work could be anything from maintenance or clerical work to tutoring younger children," said New Jersey Senator Richard Codey.

Although the programs vary, most community service programs require anywhere from 10 to 120 hours. A 1983 report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recommended making 120 hours of community service a graduation requirement for high school seniors. Many programs involve the middle schools as well as the high schools, and a few programs even start as early as kindergarten. Teachers usually serve as program coordinators, providing the students with placement assistance and monitoring their projects.

There are generally three types of program models. The first is the club model, where a new extracurricular community service club is created or such projects are added to existing school clubs. For example, a science club may plant trees or clean up a creek.

The second is the course model. The school offers an elective community service course where the students earn credits by serving in the school or community. This may include some discussion in class about the events and experiences of the project.

The third is the service learning model. This model links the service projects academically to the course material. Preparation and reflection take place in class. An English class might become pen pals with senior citizens. A history class might help out at a museum. "Minnesota definitely recommends integrating youth service into the classroom," Richardson said.

More than a million high school students are estimated to be participating in a variety of community service programs through their schools.

New Jersey's Community Service Bill

A bill introduced in 1992 by New Jersey Senator Richard Codey would require high school students to complete 15 hours of community service during their senior year. Codey says, "An important part of public education is to develop a sense of civic responsibility, especially to those in need--the sick, the poor, the homeless. Students can best learn civic responsibility by participating in community activities outside of normal school hours on an unpaid basis."

The students may work with a nonprofit organization, a public agency, a health care facility or other organizations approved by the board.

"The benefits of such a program are enormous. Obviously, the organizations, charities and civic groups will benefit from the increased number of volunteers to help them out. Just as important, the students themselves get a lot out of it. They will feel better about themselves, broaden their perspectives and perhaps discover some new skills. After all, this is a learning opportunity--learning to give of oneself, learning a little bit about how the outside world functions and learning about responsibility to the community," said Codey.

A provision in the bill allows a school board to exempt students from all or part of the required service if it would result in undue hardship for the student or if it would be inconsistent with a special education student's individual education plan.

Maryland's requirement is a state board regulation. If its bill is enacted, New Jersey will be the first state to enact a state law making community service a requirement for graduation. A similar bill last year did not come to the floor for a vote.

Opponents of Mandatory Community Service

Despite the many positive reviews of current programs, some parents and educators strongly oppose making community service mandatory. Opponents feel that making it a requirement takes away the positive feeling that volunteering should bring. Some also feel that community service hours take time away from after-school jobs. A few opponents go so far as to claim that mandatory community service violates a student's constitutional rights.

A lawsuit filed against the Bethlehem, Penn., school district claims that the school's 60-hour community service requirement violates both the 13th and First Amendments. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court by two Bethlehem students and their parents.

The Bethlehem school district's position is that mandatory community service is no different from any other curriculum requirement. The U.S. district judge agreed and found the community service requirement to be a legitimate educational activity and to be constitutional. The families have appealed the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Arguments in the case were heard in November. "All curriculum involves values," said Chief Judge Dolores Sloviter. "Why is it that a value to do community service is more objectionable than to go to Washington on a trip to see the monuments of our country?"

Beyond the constitutional question, opposition to mandatory community service often comes from school districts worried about the cost and difficulty of implementing such programs. The Prince George's County Board of Education outlined such problems in a statement to the Maryland State Board of Education in October of 1991. It cited difficulties in transporting students to volunteer sites, the time and complexity of scheduling activities, student safety and the liability for problems and accidents, and funding for additional staff time and increased personnel. "Without sufficient time and available personnel to plan, coordinate and monitor student service experiences, we believe the quality of many of these experiences may be jeopardized, at best, and, at worst, might endanger or seriously threaten our students' safety and well-being," it wrote.

The Future of Community Service

Despite the controversies, interest remains high in providing students with a hands-on learning experience by serving the community. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, director of the Maryland State Student Service Alliance and a leading supporter of the community service requirement in Maryland said, "This is education reform. This is not just volunteerism."

It seems likely that mandatory community service may withstand the constitutional challenge, but whether it can withstand the political challenges remains to be seen.

Components of a Successful Program

The Council of Chief State School Officers recommends that a school-based community service program:

* Be integrated into the K-12 curricula.

* Be open to all students, regardless of academic background or physical ability.

* Involve students in the development and direction of the project.

* Be well connected to students' academic and vocational study.

* Provide training for teachers, students and placement supervisors.

* Collaborate with existing youth and community-based organizations.

* Provide a structured period for reflection after the service experience, when students can think, talk and write about what they did.
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Author:Zinser, Jana
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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