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Schools Start Mandating Community Service

Maryland program, which begins next year, is viewed as model of flexibility for students

BRIDGET CONWAY, a high school freshman in District Heights, Md., expected sheer boredom in tutoring a third-grader the multiplication tables. But after spending weeks on the 2s and 3s, her pupil finally grasped the concept and gave Ms. Conway a hug. "Everybody needs somebody who likes them," says Conway, who now says she thinks tutoring is a great idea.

This is the kind of experience advocates hope for as public schools from California to Pennsylvania mandate community service in order to graduate.

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But questions abound. For example, does managing a team count? Should schools send kids into homeless shelters in unsafe areas of town to teach morals?

Next year, Maryland will become the first state to make service obligatory. Meanwhile, officials are scrambling to come up with ways to make programs work. Instead of just expecting a set number of hours from a student, most Maryland districts chose to design less traditional programs. Students may work on something they are interested in, learn about aspects of service in classes, and write essays about their service experience.

Ron Piper, school and community-outreach director in Maryland, has taken calls from administrators around the nation who are interested in the requirement. Maryland counties formed committees to develop plans to fit the schools. Designs were so different that the financial outlooks ranged from a few cents to about $107 per pupil.

Kathy McGuire, who led the Montgomery County committee, said placement will be a problem but not for lack of choices; the Boy Scouts, Audubon Society, and nursing homes are already looking for volunteers. The concern is over what constitutes service. Children are asking, for example, if they can mow an elderly neighbor's lawn for credit. Schools want a flexible program but are still working out wrinkles.

McGuire says flexibility also takes into consideration the fact that students are on different learning levels and may have problems donating extra time. But, she says: "To be successful at this doesn't require you to be an `A' student."

Camille McCann, a Prince Georges County teacher, says one challenge in schools is teaching qualities like responsibility and compassion. "They learn through real live people."

Ms. McCann has been teaching an optional service-learning class at Suitland High School in District Heights for six years. Although teaching service was unusual when she started, it has now become extremely popular. "Service is a whole movement now, with Clinton and his service bill," she says. "Six years ago, we had one service class. Now we have three, and this year I had double the number of students register for them than I could take." In 1990, her class won the president's Volunteer Action Award fo r the most outstanding youth-service group in the nation.

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Although service was not required for all students last year at Suitland, Conway had to take it because she is class president. Service has helped her social skills. "My mom said that I have the ability to talk to people more," she says. As for the mandate, she thinks it will help students reach more people in need.

One project is visits with senior citizens. And for the past five years, Suitland has held a senior citizens' prom that's been a big hit with participants. Each woman is crowned for something, including "best hair," compliments of the cosmetology class.

Takeia Martin, a Suitland 12th-grader, has worked with the group for four years. "Working with senior citizens makes me more comfortable around older people," she says. Last year, she held a talk show for the seniors called "Takeia Talks," on people in the 1990s. Although she considers the seniors family, she does not agree with the mandate. "Not everyone will be sincere. The seniors can spot insincerity."

In Bethlehem, Pa., parents opposing required service took their district to court, claiming the 60-hour mandate violates the First Amendment's freedom of expression and the 13th Amendment's prohibition of involuntary servitude. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that the requirement is constitutional, finding that service is "not an expressive act" and not analogous to slavery.

Kris Leary, a teacher who was on the Montgomery County committee, says their format will enable most students to complete the requirement during the school day. This is good news for those who would have had to give up soccer practice. Ms. Leary also says students are concerned about the mandate. "It's a fear of the unknown."

The plan that least resembles the others is in Howard County. It requires service in middle school. Bill Sowders, who led the designing of the program, says children are most enthusiastic at that age. "This program will lay a foundation for their high school and adult years," he says. Students will perform such activities as tree planting and lobbying the legislature.

When he heard about the mandate, his reaction was mixed. "Everyone likes the idea of volunteering, but some people think of mandated volunteerism as a contradiction in terms," he said.

Mr. Piper says although most Maryland schools thought the mandate would be costly and cumbersome, local planning could make programs work. "People are gradually turning back to their community," he says.

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