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Students Seek Time, Academic Credit for Volunteer Work

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Raleigh, NC--The questions of whether students should be excused from classes to participate in outside educational and community activities, and whether they should receive academic credit for those activities, were put to Gov. James B. Hunt and State Superintendent of Instruction A. Craig Phillips during a special all-day hearing here recently on the subject of student volunteerism.

The two officials were closely questioned during the hearing by the people who would be most affected by new policies on those issues--students themselves.

Some 45 student leaders representing 12 statewide organizations had called the hearing to examine the common barriers to and effective incentives for student involvement in voluntary educational and community activities. It was the final event in a month that had been proclaimed by the Governor, a strong advocate of volunteer activism himself, as Youth Involvement Month.

Testimony in Position Paper

The students said that they plan to use the hearing's testimony in preparing a position paper that they intend to present to the state board of education later this spring. Governor Hunt had already told the young people that he would accompany them to make the presentation to the state board.

A principal concern of the student leaders was the disparity in school policies that allows athletes and band participants to be excused from classes, but not participants in other kinds of activities.

Robert Winfree, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg student, remarked that he gets excused for basketball, but not for his involvement with the North Carolina Native American Youth Organization, of which he is president. And Thomas Mabry, a Stanly County high-school student, described a similar situation. His drafting teacher got him involved with Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, he said. He was elected secretary of the national organization and as a result of his active involvement with the club, missed 36 school days over the past year. Now his drafting teacher has informed him that he is going to flunk, he added.

'Precarious Situation'

"What this shows is how precarious the situation is in some schools," said Pamela Kohl, director of the North Carolina Youth Involvement Office, which helped organize the hearing. "It's up to teachers and principals to decide the degree of student involvement."

The student leaders found a strong ally in Governor Hunt, who has been awarded the National Association of Volunteer Administrators' top award for his role as a leader in the field and who spends one morning a week counseling students enrolled in a dropout-prevention program at a Raleigh high school.

But while the Governor told the student leaders that he backed their interest in volunteerism "100 percent," some other state officials--although supportive of youth involvement in educational and community activities--were less enthusiastic about granting academic credit or excused absences to student volunteers.

"Criteria [for awarding academic credit] need to be established," Mr. Phillips said in his testimony.

"But it's up to the local school boards to set the policies," he added.

Mr. Phillips did, however, encourage his listeners to discuss their concerns with the local school boards.

In his testimony, Gene Causby, director of the state school board association, said that while volunteer experiences are of considerable value to students and their communities, state and local boards of education are primarily concerned with providing worthwhile activities and instruction within the schools. He would not, he added, like to see such instructional time de-emphasized.

To preserve the integrity of the high-school diploma, he said, educators must be cautious in deciding what is worthwhile educationally and what is not. From an administrative point of view, he noted, it would be difficult for schools to determine which activities should receive credit and to monitor those activities.

"How do you make a decision on what is a valid reason not to be in school?" he asked. Such decisions, if they are to be made, should be handled on a local level, he told the students.

Several other state officials expressed a fear that if the two issues were handled at the local rather than state level, the result would be a confusing variety of policies set by individual districts.

The Governor, however, strongly supported awarding academic credit for high-school students who volunteer. He suggested that structured experiences might be handled in two ways: through internships within the curriculum and through a student's own efforts to contract with an agency to work six hours a week and get one hour's credit toward graduation.

'Tremendous Experience'

Governor Hunt noted that volunteer programs may take on an even more important role now that President Reagan has proposed large cutbacks in some federal programs. "It's a tremendous experience," he said, "meaning as much to you as to the one you start out to help."

The idea for the hearing, said Cari Whittington of the Youth Involvement Office, grew out of concerns raised by students during "speak-outs" that her office conducted across the state in February to identify problems that young people encounter in the areas of juvenile justice, employment, health, and education. One of the major issues that the students cited during those sessions, she said, was that they are often discouraged from becoming involved in educational and community activities outside the schools.

"They told us, 'We're not looking for excuses to miss classes,"' she said. "But rather, they felt they were following a nationwide thrust--along with senior citizens and other members of the community who are active in volunteerism."

Career Decisions

"These students think their activities should be encouraged--working on the rescue squad, as a candystriper, for parks and recreation--because they can contribute to the community while perhaps making decisions about what kinds of careers they might like to pursue and what kind of training is necessary to do it," Ms. Whittington explained.

The student leaders plan to meet here again on April 18 to review the transcripts of the hearings and to formulate specific recommendations based on the testimony. After their presentation to the board of education, the students plan to send copies of their position paper to state education officials and to all 143 local school boards within the state. Legislation, they said, may also be proposed.

Groups represented at the hearing were the Boy Scouts' Explorers program, State Youth Council, Future Farmers of America, N.C. Native American Youth Organization, 4-H, Distributive Education Clubs of America, naacp, Youth Council, Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, ymca, Youth in Government program, Positive Youth Development, Youth Involvement Subcommittee, and Child Watch.

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