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Pride in Service

Civic duty or slavery? Compulsory volunteer work for students gets mixed reviews. But, so far, most teens are enjoying their efforts.

June 16, 1997|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROCKVILLE, Md. — With graduation only weeks away, Magruder High School senior Brent Rademacher had not even begun the 75 hours of community service required of every high school senior in the state. "I'm a procrastinator," the college-bound athlete shrugged.

Finally, at the suggestion of his coach, Rademacher spent several weekends teaching swimming to disabled children training for the Special Olympics. He met a boy his own age he could share jokes with and little kids who were always excited to see him. What started as a requirement turned out to be a heart-opening experience that he plans to continue on his own. He learned, he said, that "It's a good feeling helping someone out."

Framers of Maryland's unique statewide mandate--which, starting this month, denies diplomas to students who don't serve 75 hours--would be pleased, but not completely. They see community involvement not merely as a way for youngsters to feel good about themselves, but as an integral way of helping to solve social problems.

"I wanted kids to think about why they're doing service," said Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who five years ago led the campaign here. "In late 20th century America, we had very little language that articulated our duty to others, our responsibility as citizens to get involved. The only language we had was the language of self-fulfillment," she said wryly.

Often citing a "tragic disconnection" between schools and communities, an estimated 30% to 40% of schools across the country are now trying various ways to attract, cajole or prod young people into community service.

In April, a new organization of dozens of social service and education groups called for model programs in 10,000 schools nationwide by next June.

In California--where officials estimate as few as 1 in 4 adults has any personal contact with young people outside media images--untold numbers of individual districts and schools already require service. The Los Angeles Unified School District is considering an hourly requirement for graduation. In Sacramento, legislators are considering a bill that would mandate at least the opportunity for all students to receive credit for service.

Contrary to popular perception, however, researchers say many students are already motivated to serve. What's more, it's unclear whether the school-based requirements are really making service meaningful. While some schools promote a strategy called "service learning," teacher-led projects that teach academics through service, most call for a set number of hours, often providing students only with lists of outside agencies. Others do both.

So far, no other state has followed Maryland's approach.

In Maryland, community service was mandated around the state, but training and support were not universally implemented, and every district was left to design its own program, said Marilyn Smith, former director of Maryland's Commission on Service and now director of Learn and Serve America, a national service program. "Lots of educators were very enthusiastic," she said. "Lots didn't know what it was. Lots were not interested."

For instance, a science teacher in Anne Arundel County teamed with a forester and helped students raise fish for testing in Chesapeake Bay. Others sent students to hospitals or museums where they slapped labels on mailers.

Some schools counted almost anything from participation in band or child development class, volunteering in a political campaign, writing a song--or watching Saturday morning cartoons. (In that case, the student was asked to count the number of violent acts in three hours of cartoons and reflect on violence and the media.)

Some counselors said they resented the additional time needed to cajole, even sometimes shame, students into completing the requirement (at one school, laggards' names were read over the loudspeaker). "I think we do too much," said a guidance counselor at Northwestern High in Prince George's County. "I shouldn't have to spend my time doing this."

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When worse came to worst, workers from AmeriCorps, the national program that offers education awards in exchange for service, were available to call parents or drive students to their volunteer assignments, leading critics to complain the students were not learning to take responsibility. Some students said they were surprised to see they had received credit for service hours they hadn't even realized they had earned.

And one principal cited political pressure to ensure the success of the service requirement, unlike the graduation requirements in academic subjects. Observed Magruder Principal Jack Graham, "They don't come to us and say, 'You make sure that kid passes algebra.' "

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