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Student Power

Maryland legislators trying to do away with a statewide community-service requirement for high school graduation found themselves face to face with some formidable foes: students.

Annie Peirce, Sarah Thibadeau, and Matt Yalowitz, all seniors at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., traveled to the state Capitol in Annapolis on March 12 to defend "student service"—a term preferable in the state to community service, because "that's what prisoners do," said Mr. Yalowitz.

The lawmakers listened. The bill, which was sponsored by seven Republicans in the Democratic-controlled Senate, received an unfavorable report from the Senate education committee, essentially killing the measure.

"It's a feel-good kind of thing, and if you oppose it, you are anti-feel- good," Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, one of the sponsors of the repeal bill, said of the service requirement. He said the mandate makes volunteerism compulsory, which he called a contradiction.

In addition, he said, students often complete their needed 75 hours of service during school hours, and argued that this time should be spent on learning.

But Ms. Peirce pointed out that she has completed 357 service hours without ever leaving the classroom, thanks to the Montgomery Ultimate Story Exchange, or MUSE, a creative-writing program Ms. Peirce, Thibadeau, and Mr. Yalowitz started two years ago.

At the Maryland Capitol, the three teenagers explained to lawmakers that their student-service program uses e-mail to partner high school students with nearby elementary school pupils.

The 15 elementary school "mentees" send stories they've written to the high school mentors each week. The older students then edit the pieces, and send their suggestions back to the children.

The mentors learn writing and editing skills, as well as the responsibility of having younger students "hang on their every word," said Mr. Yalowitz.

And the younger students not only improve their writing and hone technology skills, he said, but also, "at a young age, they learn the value of student service."

And what else has student service done for the teenagers? "We've learned organizational skills, public-speaking skills, leadership skills, and group skills," Mr. Yalowitz said.

All lessons, Ms. Peirce added, that could not be learned in her regular classroom activities.

—Michelle Galley

Vol. 22, Issue 29, Page 25

Published in Print: April 2, 2003, as State Journal

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