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Graduation Requirement: Good Deeds

'Service learning' gains ground nationally, but critics question its educational value

Naeemah Fuller of Boston is performing community service for high school credit.

John Reinhard Jr. of Chapel Hill, N.C., is suing his local school board all the way to the United States Supreme Court to avoid it.

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These two students show how far apart some Americans are on the concept of service learning, a controversial approach to character education that is taking hold in a growing number of America's high schools. There is no official tally, but educators estimate that 10 percent require students to perform some service to graduate, from feeding the homeless to cleaning up polluted streambeds.

The concept may have its roots in the hard-driving 1980s, when educators and parents alike began to voice concerns about the values their children were absorbing. An odd collection of conservatives and liberals called for a return to volunteerism, hoping it would provide a moral compass. As a result, many school boards placed community service alongside history and geometry as a requirement.

But the change spawned any number of lawsuits by parents, such as the Reinhard family, who argued that schools are overstepping their bounds. Even some in the back-to-basics movement see service learning as a distraction.

Nevertheless, mandating good citizenship is clearly catching on.

"There are some school districts that do a wonderful job of integrating service learning into the regular curriculum," says Kathie Christie, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "For high school students, if they were not required to do it, they would probably not get a taste of the pleasure of doing something not for money."

Surveys and studies convey a muddled picture of teen volunteerism. One recent study by Independent Sector in Washington, reports that volunteering by teens has risen 7 percent since 1992. A separate survey, conducted in 1995, found that 75 percent of teens do not currently perform community service because they don't know how or haven't been asked; 95 percent said it should be required in school.

Service learning may receive its strongest field test in Maryland, which requires 75 hours of community service for high school graduation statewide. Parents, teachers unions, and religious conservatives initially opposed the 1992 mandatory-service law. But this year, as the first group to face the requirement heads toward graduation, much of the opposition has eased.

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"Initially, parents were afraid that service learning would take away from the basic curriculum, but actually, it enhances it," says Susan Falcone, the service-learning coordinator at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore. "Sometimes the best learning takes place outside of the classroom, dealing with real problems."

Variety of reaction

At Loch Raven, culinary students bake birthday cakes for a local orphanage, art students help decorate a nearby pediatric unit, and one class is gathering 1,000 "hygiene bags" full of toothbrushes, soap, and other items for the homeless.

"You get such a variety of reaction from the kids," Ms. Falcone says. "There are some real gung-ho kids and then some 'I-don't-know-about-this' kids. But they usually come around."

But while parents and students may be coming around to service-learning in Baltimore, one parent in Chapel Hill, N.C., has dug in for a long legal fight against it.

"Mandatory volunteer service is an oxymoron," says John Reinhard Sr., a medical researcher and parent who sued the Chapel Hill school district. "I have no problem with voluntary service. But if you replace a child's internal desire for service with an external motivation, the next time he is exposed to the opportunity, he'll say, 'I gave at the office.' "

Major flaws

One major flaw with required service, Mr. Reinhard contends, is that, unlike math or literature, "it doesn't have a clear educational goal. It's done for the moral upbringing of a child, and it's based on the idea that you have to coerce a child to get him to do the right thing."

Reinhard is appealing a decision at the Fourth US Court of Appeals, which held that schools, not parents, can dictate which programs are appropriate. The US Supreme Court is expected to announce in the next few weeks whether it will take the case.

Whatever the outcome in the courts, Reinhard's son, also named John, says he would rather finish his senior year at the local community college than submit to the school's service requirement.

"I have no problem with community service," says John Reinhard Jr., a junior at Chapel Hill High School. "But if you force someone to do it, don't call it volunteering. I'm actually thinking of volunteering at an animal shelter, but I won't document it."

In Boston, Ms. Fuller, a junior at City on a Hill Charter School, has no problem with her 75-hour service requirement.

Already this year, Fuller has helped teachers at a local elementary school and passed out leaflets on voting rights. Her current job, a two-week stint at the Boston Persistent Poverty Project, gives her a chance to see the laws of probability and statistics put into practice.

"We have charts that say, this is the amount of people in this neighborhood, this is the number of jobs there, and this is the likely poverty rate," she says from her high-rise office in downtown Boston. "It shocked me when I saw it, because I live in one of those neighborhoods."

"It's been a great experience," Fuller says. "If you do this, you can avoid getting to college wishing you'd spent more time learning about computers or something else. And it looks great on a resume."

* Previous articles in this series ran Aug. 27, Sept. 23, Oct. 18, Nov. 18, Jan. 7, and Jan. 14.

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