At Your Service

By Jessica Portner — November 23, 1994 20 min read

Photographs By Benjamin Tice Smith

The chilly wind whips the yellow and brown leaves around the granite gravestones at St. Paul’s Cemetery in this middle-class suburb of Baltimore. Eighth grader Kelly Mahoney is tromping through the old burial ground in search of a particular tombstone.

Her morning trek is part environmental cleanup, part history lesson, and it will earn her three hours’ credit toward her service-learning requirement at Pa-tapsco Middle School.

Thousands of Maryland students like Kelly will be serving their communities this fall. In an effort to integrate the values of citizenship into education, Maryland last year became the only state to require service-learning as a condition of high school graduation.

More than 200 school districts across the nation had already subscribed to the idea that service to the community should be a required part of the educational program. But Maryland’s experiment is on a much larger scale. Starting with the high school class of 1997, nearly 60,000 Maryland students must complete 75 hours of service or satisfy an alternative requirement designed by their district.

From the West Virginia border along the panhandle east to the suburbs of Washington, the local service projects that have emerged to meet that mandate range from the genuinely altruistic to the faintly ridiculous. Some students have become regular companions to ailing nursing-home residents, while others are peddling fast food at county fairs. Some of the more questionable assignments have inspired student revolt and parental disgust. Indeed, in some Maryland households, mandated service is being denounced as indentured servitude. Still, a number of service-learning programs have helped launch young careers. This one in Ellicott City is among the best.

But Kelly, who is busy tracking down a dead person, has her mind on other things.

“I know he was buried in a large grave with eight of his relatives,” the 13-year-old says to two of her friends who are helping in the search. Kristen Lucido approaches a well-kept stone pillar that juts up six feet above the dark soil, dwarfing her. The faint inscription reads “Matthew A. Powers. Born 1846. Died 1929.”

“I found it!” she shouts.

“He could’ve been a soldier in the Civil War,” says Kelly, rushing up to look at the other names carved on the communal marker. Her friends quickly scatter to find the graves they chose from a list of names in their history class.

Thirty other 8th graders wander around, identifying trees, weeding the paths, and transplanting ferns.

If they preserve the cemetery and its surroundings, “maybe this won’t turn into condos,” Kelly says. (A few years ago, the site, owned by a Roman Catholic church, was in danger of being bulldozed by a developer.)

Suddenly, several students at the top of the hill start to scream, startling others below. While plunging a metal sign into the dirt beside a large cedar tree, 13-year-old Sarah Butler struck a gravestone that had been buried beneath the tree’s roots.

The students and several parent volunteers hurry up the hill and huddle around the stone to read the markings: “Patrick Hickey. Died 1868, a native of County Meath, Ireland, 41 years.”

Katherine Potocki, the American history teacher who began this project four years ago, says the name doesn’t appear on the the local historical society’s 1985 map of the cemetery.

“This is so awesome,” gushes 13-year-old Shaun Grahe, wiping dirt from the cold stone with his gloves. “I never would have dreamed of finding something out of the blue.”

Tales From the Crypt

Excited by their discovery, the junior archaeologists pile back into the school bus and return to class.

The classroom is a big square with six tables. A bumper sticker tacked to the wall reads “I Brake for Old Graveyards.”

Potocki, wearing duck boots and blue jeans, seamlessly integrates today’s discovery into her lecture on immigration. “We found a new grave today. Many of the tombstones are English. But other immigrants--German, Gaelic, Irish--lived here because they worked in the mills.”

The cemetery began in 1841, and the life span of the people buried there--one lived to 104--allows Potocki to go back further in time.

She says she can tie the cemetery project to nearly every subject she teaches: from the Native Americans who lived on the land to the War of 1812, the Civil War, and industrialization.

“Freed slaves are buried next to Civil War soldiers, rich mill owners beside poor immigrants,” says Potocki, waving photographs of the cemetery in front of her class. These old stones, she assures them, have many stories to tell.

Next week, her students will search for material on the deceased by looking at old mortgages, voter-registration lists, and other historical documents. They can use previous classes’ discoveries as steppingstones, but they may not duplicate other students’ work.

Thanks to the efforts of the class of 1992, a Howard County ordinance now prohibits the development of any historic burial site, so the cemetery project will very likely be a perennial. “These children have the moral high ground because history should not be destroyed,” Potocki says. “It should be preserved.”

Her class’s project is upheld as a model by state officials overseeing the service projects because it blends the service activity into the curriculum. Successful proj-ects, these officials say, are ones that fulfill the three basic components of service-learning: preparation and planning, performance of the service, and reflection.

Potocki is the first to acknowledge that her achievements are, in part, a function of location. The school, found in a middle-class suburb sandwiched between Washington and Baltimore, is rich in resources. Parents take time to volunteer, and most students seem genuinely enthusiastic about giving something back to their community.

Eighth grader Stacey Kocher takes to heart the phrase “think globally, act locally.” She and her friends have begun restoring a small gravesite near her house, weeding and clearing trash from the property.

“If you help the community,” says Stacey, her cheeks still flushed from the morning outing, “you can improve the world.”

Baltimore City

A half-hour north in Baltimore, Robert Black is sitting in his social-studies classroom comparing service-learning to the civil-rights movement.

“This is a bottom-up, grassroots operation much like the anti-war and women’s-rights struggle,” says Black, a teacher at the Harbor City Learning Center, an alternative school near downtown.

Service-learning is ultimately about citizenship and about finding your place in society, says Black, who began teaching the subject in 1969. He admits he gets very sentimental about it all. “People are in need all around us,” he says, “but we don’t see that they require attention.”

To help hone his students’ sense of civic responsibility, Black is happy to dispatch them to local hospitals, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens.

“We have to get beyond these four walls,” he says, knowing that most of his students function better outside the traditional classroom setting. Most Harbor City students are former dropouts. Some were left behind in school because of learning disabilities or chronic medical problems. Many are poor and could easily be recipients of community service themselves.

Nineteen-year-old Chastity Price, whose diabetes and asthma caused her to miss too many classes in her old school, is loading a pitcher full of ice in the kitchen of Our Daily Bread, Baltimore’s busiest soup kitchen. It’s 10:30 on this fall morning, and the aroma of stew and vegetables wafts through the crowded kitchen and out into the sunny main hall.

Chastity, whose friends call her C.C., slips on a green apron and carries supplies to her regular station, where she has been working once a week since March. The four corner tables reserved for families are set with bright flowered placemats. A dozen volunteers buzz around the room, stacking extra plates and preparing to serve more than 500 midday meals. C.C.'s main task is to make sure the guests are never thirsty.

Although she lives across town, C.C. says she sometimes recognizes people from her neighborhood coming in for lunch. As the crowd streams in, a woman with a baby takes a seat at one of the tables, and C.C. brings over some iced tea and a cup of milk for the boy.

“I like to come here and see the kids ‘cause I don’t have one of my own,” says C.C., who lost her unborn child in a car accident a few months earlier.

She has lived alone since she was 17 because her mother and father, who are divorced, have a total of 20 children between them, and their houses are too crowded. She is only two credits short of graduation, and this assignment will put her over the top. C.C. says she wants to be a nurse and has already been accepted by a local college.

For Black’s students, service-learning is often about building self-esteem.

“Many young people feel it’s them against the world,” Black muses. “They have been labeled as below whatever society deems as normal, and they feel good when they do something positive.”

“Some of the guests say I brighten their day when they see me,” says C.C., walking toward a table of people clamoring for refills.

Building Skills

Service can be personally rewarding, but it also has practical benefits. A project can double as an internship in which a student can explore a career and learn valuable job skills.

Across town at Liberty Medical Center, Dominique Wright inserts a plastic thermometer into a patient’s mouth and waits for the timer to beep. As part of her job at the ambulatory-care unit, the 18-year-old dressed in a blue hospital smock takes patients’ blood pressure, runs prescriptions to the pharmacy, and wheels patients to their cars.

Dominique seems unfazed by the hospital environment--patients on gurneys with intravenous drips, the ubiquitous needles and blood--because she herself has been hospitalized for asthma.

She says she wants to be a pediatrician someday and is happy to be someplace where she can learn more about the medical profession. In the past month, she’s served people with a variety of ailments.

“I’ve seen patients come in for cataract removals and tubal pregnancies,” the teenager says.

An elderly woman with an eye patch slowly walks into the waiting room to check out. Dominique snaps into action and slips a wheelchair under the woman to wheel her to her car. Navigating the patient through a maze of hospital corridors, Dominique says she thinks service is a “rush.”

Dominique isn’t required to put in these service hours; the law exempts students her age. But she knows plenty of younger students who can benefit from volunteering, and, as one of Black’s “ambassadors,” she’s spreading the word about service.

“A lot of people don’t know that people behind the scenes can make a difference,” she says.

Like most urban areas, Baltimore is a magnet for service agencies, which means that Dominique and other students in the state’s largest city have their pick of several hundred jobs. She’s thinking of switching midsemester to tutor elementary school students just for a change. In rural communities, however, such a rich selection of service options is harder to find.

Garrett County

Route 219 splits off the interstate and runs southwest into Garrett County, past cornfields and cattle pastures and pumpkin stands. Bordered by West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the county sits in the remote northwestern corner of the state. Election posters pockmark the roadside, and the leading candidates in this conservative rural area are Republican.

Most of the residents first came here to work in the West Virginia coal mines just a few miles away. Now, though, the coal is nearly mined out, and tourism is the leading local industry. Vacationers flock to fish at Deep Creek Lake in the summertime and pack the ski resorts along the Allegheny Mountains in the winter.

This October day, the residents are preparing for the annual fall festival, which will fill the bed-and-breakfasts with visitors from the city.

Michelle Zollner’s 8th-grade class is getting ready as well. The community-service teacher for Southern Middle School in Oakland, Zollner lists some of the service opportunities for her students on the blackboard.

“The Rotary Club needs 40 aides for the Autumn Glory Festival--especially the french-fry booth,” she tells her class. Students who volunteer to deep-fry potatoes at the annual fair will earn money that might help keep the school gym open on Saturdays. Zollner gives students the forms they need to get credit for their hours.

Some stare out the window of the classroom as a tractor inches across a field. Then the bell rings, and the students pour out into the corridor.

Outside, 8th grader Sharon Compitelle is earning service credits as a hall monitor. The school requires all 8th graders to police the corridors for two hours as part of their service requirement. The tall blonde teenager leans against the lockers as the crowd whisks past her down the hallway. She is wearing the hall monitors’ official uniform: a school-issue black T-shirt with a picture of a spyglass on the back and “I Spy Squad” in yellow letters across the front.

“We have to stop people from messing around, getting in fights,” Sharon explains. She is also required to clean up after litterers.

Donna Durst, an algebra teacher who helps administer the project, says it teaches students to be responsible for problems in their immediate environment.

“They can’t fix the ozone layer, but they can fix the hallways not looking so bad,” Durst says. But not every student makes that connection.

Sharon says this assignment makes her feel more like a slave than a student. “I think it should be the janitors’ job,” she complains. “They get paid for that.”

Sharon is echoing the complaints of parents and students in Maryland and elsewhere in the country. In fact, in some places, community-service requirements have led to lawsuits against school districts. Parents in Bethlehem, Pa., and Chapel Hill, N.C., for example, have alleged that their school districts’ service requirements are nothing less than involuntary servitude.

What Is Service?

Policing the halls and making french fries are not traditionally thought of as community service. But when the state board of education approved the mandate, it defined community service rather broadly. The board simply requires that the activity be developmentally appropriate and that there be a method of tracking student progress in meeting the number of hours. Each district is charged with setting its own guidelines.

But, without specific categories of exactly what the service should be, some business owners have taken advantage of students.

“One student worked for a stonemason for 10 hours of free labor, and that’s not right,” says Zollner, who now routinely screens employers.

But Zollner and others have confidence that these and other problems in the service-learning program can be worked out over time. “Last year was the birth year,” she says. “And the birthing process is always difficult.”

But Doug Oxford, a psychology teacher at nearby Southern High School, wishes the service-learning program had never been born. He and his family are avid supporters of community service, but he believes it should not be mandated because it robs time from more fundamental academic subjects.

“I don’t think it’s beneath any person to help out, but I’m trying to teach people to go to college,” Oxford says, his classroom flooding with students.

Despite his opposition, Oxford has been asked this year to teach the required service-learning course for the high school.

On his desk, cluttered with lesson plans and photos of his children, Oxford flips through the service-learning handbook provided to him by the Maryland Student Service Alliance, the state organization that administers the program. He points to one page of the manual that outlines a team-building exercise to help students “build trust in each other.”

“These kids have known each other since grade school,” an exasperated Oxford says. “They don’t need to do trust exercises. They need to stop failing standardized tests!”

Besides, he continues, the whole community-service program is superfluous. Garrett County is a place where they name a milkshake after you at the ice-cream shop and everyone you meet is a neighbor. Oxford recalls how a fire destroyed a third of the town last year and “everybody pitched in to help.”

His students already have a powerful sense of community, he says; the state doesn’t need to manufacture one. But despite his contempt for the program, Oxford is a dedicated service-learning teacher. For his students’ sake, he is trying to make the best of it.

The service-learning program in Garrett must also deal with the fact that students often have work obli-gations. Unlike Baltimore and Howard County, Garrett requires that most of the service hours be completed during after-school hours.

“My brother had to sweep the parking lot at the bank at night, and he hated it,” says 17-year-old Holly Stoner, sitting in the back of Oxford’s class. “He already had his chores at home--feeding the horses and the dogs--and it was hard for him to do both.”

Holly says many of her friends need to work on farms in the afternoon to help support their families. Transportation can also be a problem for parents, she says, noting that they can’t always rely on buses to shuttle their children to their service jobs after school.

Selling Service

Part of the difficulty in selling the service program to teachers and parents is that many don’t understand that community service is only half of the state’s mandate, says Cathy L. Brill, the director of special education for the state student-service alliance.

Successful service-learning demands that the community-service activity be “infused” into what is being taught in the classroom, she says.

Essentially, service-learning is a method of teaching based on the belief that students learn by doing. It resembles other education-reform concepts like experiential and expeditionary learning, which use “real world” activities to stimulate learning.

Many teachers say, however, that they lack the skills to change their instructional approaches and that if the state is going to require it, they need more preparation.

“The state has just thrown a monkey wrench into the way we’ve been teaching,” says Patricia A. Foerster, the vice president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, which opposed the mandate from the beginning. “You don’t make these kinds of changes without providing professional development.”

Brill responds that her organization has scheduled five teacher training sessions around the state this month and will plan additional trainings as needed.

Some of the state’s teacher colleges will begin teaching service-learning courses this year to better prepare the next generation of teachers, she adds. “This is a shift, and it may drive people crazy,” Brill acknowledges. “But it’s a way to make school more relevant for the kids.”

While they are pioneers in this effort on the state level, Brill and her colleagues in Maryland know they are part of a larger national effort.

President Clinton’s recently launched AmeriCorps program has increased public awareness of service. The AmeriCorps program, which the President has likened to a “domestic Peace Corps,” enlists young people in national-service jobs in exchange for assistance with their college tuition.

National education figures, such as Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, have also endorsed such efforts. An advocate of service-learning before the term was invented, Boyer says he is surprised that there is opposition to the mandate. “The problem in America is not that we have people engaged in service, but that we have kids who feel alienated,” he says. “Civics is at the heart of public education because it helps to build personal responsibility. It’s the centerpiece of what schooling is all about.”

The Maryland service-learning program was largely designed by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer who founded the student-service alliance. Last week, Townsend won a narrow victory in her race to become Lieutenant Governor of Maryland. Her election virtually insures that the program will continue to have a high profile in the state, and perhaps nationally as well.

But some teachers in Maryland don’t need a hard sell; service-learning is just another term for something they’ve been doing for years.

Carroll County

An hour northwest of Baltimore, Uniontown is a cross between suburban and country, a commuter town with a landscape of working family farms.

Robert Foor-Hogue is leading a small band of students across a green field to a stream that runs behind South Carroll High School. Carrying shovels and pails, the students rush to keep pace with their science teacher, whose long blond ponytail is bobbing against his lab coat.

“You’ve heard of the Pied Piper? That’s him,” says Principal David T. Booz, following Foor-Hogue, who has a bright red parrot perched on his shoulder.

The students slowly descend into the streambed, a natural wetland that has been damaged by erosion. For the past two years, Foor-Hogue’s classes have been restoring the stream, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

With the help of more than $100,000 in grants from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, students have built a wooden footbridge through the wetland to decrease the turbidity in the water, which can kill the fish and insect life. They have planted shrubs and helped to protect the natural spring.

Today, the students are giving the stream a checkup. Foor-Hogue pairs the younger students who are earning their service credits with the older ones in his environmental club.

“What makes good teaching is sophisticated learning,” he says, surveying his classes from the bridge. One group is filling tubes with water samples to measure the oxygen level in the stream.

“This is important to know because the fish need oxygen, and if there is not enough, the ecosystem will die,” James Hirsch, a senior, explains to a sophomore beside him.

Another team of students is counting and classifying aquatic insects downstream. If they find sensitive organisms, it means that the water quality is good, says Foor-Hogue, who hops from group to group conducting an impromptu quiz.

“Where are your bugs? Have you found any insects?” he asks Carolyn Barnes, a sophomore who is crouching in the cool rushing water. She lifts a cylindrical creature off a slippery rock and tries to match it with a diagram. “It’s a caddis fly,” she exclaims, displaying the pollution-sensitive insect in her palm.

During the three-hour project, students walk back and forth to the bridge to take what they need from the plastic tackle boxes filled with supplies: basters, nets, magnifying glasses, and bottles.

Foor-Hogue marvels at the opportunities his outdoor classroom provides.

“To make an environmentalist, you have to catch the fish, identify the bugs, and know that if the trout don’t have bugs, they don’t live,” says Foor-Hogue, standing on the mossy bank. “To understand the elegance of it, you have to get your hands dirty.”

In another part of the creekbed, sophomore Lindsay Pyles has found 10 mayflies, sensitive insects with six legs and feathery gills. “When I grow up, I want to study the wetlands,” she says, climbing up the bank with her catch.

Lindsay thinks the service requirement is a good idea because “I am learning what I need to know for my future.”

“In order to convince kids to pay back society, they have to be taught,” says Foor-Hogue. He believes a mandate is needed because “students are not getting enough guidance from home.”

A Little Paperwork

Inside Foor-Hogue’s cavernous science lab are several large tanks filled with trout and striped bass, the latter endangered by sport fishing. One student works on a diagram of one of the larger tanks for a research paper. Foor-Hogue requires all his 11th and 12th graders to write research papers, most of which can be tied to the service work they do.

He plops piles of them out of a cabinet: papers on aquatic vegetation, wetland restoration, hydroponics, storm-water management. For Foor-Hogue, the service-learning requirement isn’t a drastic change. It just means a little more paperwork.

But the real test of the state’s mandate will be in 1997 when the first high school class is scheduled to graduate.

Donna D. Roop, a Carroll County parent with a son in high school, predicts widespread revolt. “So many students are going to retaliate and not earn their hours,” she says. “Can’t you see a herd of parents descending on the board of education saying they have no right to hold their student’s diploma?”

But that’s three years from now. And for the time being, state education leaders are trying not to think about that.

A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as At Your Service