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Coming Up Short

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Two-thirds of Maryland's 11th graders have not completed the state's requirement that they perform 75 hours of community service before they graduate next year. The class of 1997 is the first to have to satisfy the service-learning mandate, which legislators approved in 1993.

Maryland is the only state to require community service of students before they can graduate from high school.

A report by the state board of education shows that so far more than 30,000 of the state's 46,000 juniors have not finished the hours of community service they will need to earn their diplomas next year. More than 20,000 of those students were making progress, the report says, but the remaining 10,000--nearly a quarter of the class--have made no headway toward fulfilling the requirement.

Students' progress varies widely across the state, the report shows. In Anne Arundel County, for example, 93 percent of students already have fulfilled the requirement, while nearly the opposite is true in the Baltimore city schools, where only 4 percent of students have completed the hours needed, and 87 percent have made no progress.

"We are experiencing the growing pains of getting it implemented,'' said Beverly Thompson, service-learning coordinator for the Baltimore schools. "The main problem is it isn't cut and dried. You can't just hand them a package and say it's supposed to be a learning experience. It has to be institutionalized.'' The 110,000-student district is planning to aggressively market the program to next year's graduating seniors, Thompson said, and has sent letters to parents explaining the requirement. The district also plans to offer a service-learning class for students this summer.

Student leaders in Maryland say the findings in the board's report reflect the difficulty of

implementing an effective statewide community-service program. Tracy Tucker, the student representative on the state school board, polled 17 student members of local school boards and asked them about the obstacles the program faced in their districts.

"Where the organization of the program was lacking, students felt there was a burden on them and the outlook was more negative,'' Tucker, a senior at Westlake High School in Charles County, said. "If they organized the program better, many more students would become involved and meet the hours.''

She added that many students across the state are not sure what types of activities count toward the service requirement. "Students see it as unfair when in some places you can go to a school dance to get your hours and in other areas you have to go into the community and do things,'' she said.

Ravin Hall, another student leader, said procrastination is also a reason for the low participation rates among her peers. "The service requirement is one of those things you put on the side, and you'll get around to it when it comes up,'' said Hall, a senior at Northern High School in Calvert County, Md., who sits on the local school board.

Margaret O'Neill, executive director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance, which runs the program for the state, said the survey will help officials identify places that might need additional assistance. "We have a year and a semester to keep moving forward,'' she said.

--Jessica Portner

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