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Elementary Lessons on 'The Habit of Involvement

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What do you want for the world? What do you want for yourself?" I asked a 3rd grader.

"For the world," he said, "I want enough food and shelter for everyone. For me, I want a gi Joe with a matching Mattel grenade launcher and a swimming pool."

So works the mind of an 8-year-old. Young children are apt to entertain contradictions easily, turning ideas on their heads without being aware there is any inconsistency. The late scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rene Dubos, who admonished us to "think globally, act locally," would have been interested in this youngster's response.

Schools must continue to ask at what age and in what ways young children are ready to learn the painful truths about the gap between the haves and the have-nots, between our ideals and realities. And as part of this, educators have to ask how elementary schools can make community service an important part of the lives of young children--long before they reach adolescence, when most service programs currently begin.

There has been a flurry of legislative proposal-making in the area of youth volunteer service. The topic is receiving more attention today than at any time since the Peace Corps began. Consider President Bush's proposed Youth Entering Service to America (yes) Foundation, Senator Edward M. Kennedy's $330-million school-based program, Senator Sam Nunn's "voucher volunteer" legislation, and Senator Barbara Mikulski's "National Guard" voucher service model--to name a few.

But most of these proposals don't emphasize the need to start early, or the need to involve students, parents, teachers, and administrators side by side.

The usual elementary-school service programs include walk-a-thons, ride-a-thons, read-a-thons, and jump-a-thons for charity. There are annual Christmas and Thanksgiving drives: placemats are made, toys are collected, and occasionally children will vis6it a seniors' rest home or a hospital.

All of these activities do some good, but the essential question remains: How can we help service go beyond sporadic and short-lived projects to become a deep commitment, a habit of involvement? How can young children, their parents, teachers, and principals work together to make a better community?

At my school, an independent Quaker institution in the nation's capital, we think we have found a way. It began eight years ago, when the school forged a close relationship with a local nonprofit soup kitchen serving homeless and hungry families.

For years, our young students had performed the usual helping and visiting activities at nursing homes, hospitals, and other agencies. But these projects, while meaningful, did not seem to have a lasting impact on them or their families. We wanted a program that would provide an ongoing--and encompassing--involvement. And we found ito fill 200 newly created positions.

The panel's report also indicated that:

Key employees have not been adequately involved and affected agencies have not been consulted during the reorganization process. In addition, plans for the department to assume certain functions from other agencies were being carried out without the approval of the legislature, as required by law.

Open positions in the deparment have been advertised prematurely.

The department has made plans to station regional field representatives at colleges and universities without prior approval from the institutions.

The $672,000 in estimated savings from the reorganization is less than would be expected from an agency change of such magnitude.

The department leadership had to abandon its previous reorganization deadline of Jan. 1. Plans to change the department's name were dropped in response to concerns expressed by members of the legislature.

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