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PARENTING : Lessons in Giving : Community-service requirements help Valley schools foster students' sense of responsibility.


Though it's easy to dismiss some kids today as self-absorbed and self-indulgent, the labels don't always apply.

Consider Studio City grade-school students who knit caps for homeless people, or Reseda students who use their acting abilities to keep guns out of schools. In Van Nuys, youngsters raise money and donate toys to those less fortunate than themselves. In Chatsworth, students plant trees to beautify their local Metrolink station.

In a cynical world where many adults feel powerless to alleviate chronic social problems, San Fernando Valley schools are working to foster a sense of responsibility in their students.

Educators hope that the next generation will be willing and able to make a difference by learning to give of themselves.

Leo Lowe, assistant superintendent of the Las Virgenes Unified School District, stresses how important it is for youngsters to develop the habit of contributing to society. "Many children are so cloistered from the real world," he says. "For them to see its varied conditions, look beyond their own circumstances and weigh them against the problems of others, it helps them recognize their good fortune."

Lowe supervised a committee formed last year to study the possibility of making volunteerism a graduation requirement in the Las Virgenes district. Though the effort foundered over concerns about its legality, and fears that mandatory volunteerism might defeat the spirit of giving, Lowe and many other educators and charity figures strongly support such programs in elementary as well as secondary schools.

Elsewhere, under the jurisdiction of the L. A. Unified School District, Chatsworth High School made volunteerism mandatory, instituting a requirement in 1993 for all seniors to complete 10 hours of community service and increasing the requirement to 20 hours for this year. The measure was approved by a school-based management council made up of students, teachers, parents and administrators.

Ed Burke, the school's government teacher and sponsor of the volunteer program, reports that, so far, students have planted trees, worked on political campaigns, visited hospital shut-ins and helped out in libraries. Not only are young people getting more involved, he says, but their parents are participating too, joining their kids for tree-planting and politicking.

At Grant High School in Van Nuys, where service programs are still voluntary, students are equally exuberant, says Michael Denman, a history teacher who oversees student government programs. Denman supervises the school's biggest volunteer effort, Operation Happiness, which supplies youngsters with holiday gifts through the Children's Bureau of Los Angeles. "Even (students) who don't have a lot of money contribute to it," says Denman, adding that while most of the school's home rooms "adopt" one to five children, some are so gung-ho they end up helping out as many as 20 kids.

Entire communities, as well as individuals, reap the rewards of such programs. Burke says that Chatsworth's Metrolink station, enhanced by trees planted by students, is a better place today, thanks to their labors.

"The community benefits in so many ways," says Burke. "It is beautified, improved. Students are made better citizens now, and we hope that sense of responsibility continues in the future."


For Shahrzad Firouz, a senior at Reseda High School, the wish to end violence prompted her to volunteer her time. After a student shooting on the school campus a couple of years ago, an organization called W.A.R.N. (Weapons Are Removed Now) was formed on campus. Members of the organization produce plays that focus on nonviolence and take them on tour to local elementary schools. According to Firouz, who has participated in the program for a year, "It's been very useful, and I really believe in it. Our voices are being heard."

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