Erin Neubauer spent a recent Wednesday afternoon serving ham, sweet potatoes, and broccoli at the Manna House soup kitchen in Bel Air, Md.
But this was no spontaneous act of goodwill for the Bel Air High School 9th grader. It was part of her coursework in Patrick Whitehurst’s freshman government class and helped fulfill a statewide requirement that all students perform community service before graduating.
“It’s given me an opportunity that wouldn’t have been there,” she said last week. “I didn’t even know a soup kitchen existed in Harford County.”
As a freshman, Ms. Neubauer has a leg up on meeting a requirement some Maryland seniors are now scrambling to fulfill. This year’s graduating class is the first required to perform community service.
The state recently reported that as of mid-March, in three of the state’s largest districts, more than 20 percent of the seniors hadn’t completed enough service to graduate. School officials have sent home reminders and arranged more service opportunities.
As graduation nears, Maryland’s mandate is drawing more attention. A growing number of educators are considering using service learning to help produce graduates who are both educated and good citizens. An estimated 2.5 million young people were expected to perform community service as part of National Youth Service Day April 15.
And President Clinton this month urged other states to follow Maryland’s lead.
“In serious debates about the future of education, you can’t ignore the role of service learning,” said Luke Frazier, who directs the Maryland Student Service Alliance, the group monitoring the state mandate.
Sending the Message
Under the Maryland mandate, districts could either require 75 hours of service or seek state approval for a plan that infused service learning throughout their academic programs. All of Maryland’s 24 districts chose the latter.
Ideally, supporters say, the projects should connect classroom learning with community life.
In Harford County, where nearly all of the district’s 2,048 seniors have completed their requirement, students in Linn Griffiths’ 7th grade science class are monitoring the impact of their school on streams leading into the Chesapeake Bay. The students’ reports are handed over to the state department of natural resources, she said.
“I don’t think I would have been as ambitious without the requirement,” Ms. Griffiths said. “We would have studied the bay, but I wouldn’t have taken them out to monitor the water quality.”
Not every district has been so successful. As of the middle of last month, 36,820, or 85 percent, of the state’s 43,079 seniors had completed their districts’ requirements. Just one month before, 34,899 had met the requirement. Of the approximately 6,260 students without enough service to graduate, about 2,280 were 75 percent complete.
“I don’t think the students all got the message,” said Pat Richards, who coordinates service learning for the 124,000-student Prince George’s County system, the state’s largest district. “When you’re in 9th, 10th, or early in 11th grade, you’re always thinking, ‘I can do it later.’”
The noncompletion rate among students in Prince George’s County fell from 32 percent to 17 percent from mid-February to mid-March, according to state figures.
Ms. Richards and others contend that many students have done the required service and need only to turn in documentation. School officials elsewhere in the state say many students failing to perform enough service also have not fulfilled other graduation requirements.
The rush to get more students to fulfill the requirement has prompted some critics to question the kinds of service being done.
“They are so desperate for students to complete the hours that they have kids doing the most mundane things, like stuffing envelopes,” said Scott Bullock, a lawyer with the Washington-based Institute for Justice, which has unsuccessfully supported legal challenges to service-learning requirements.
Mr. Bullock questions districts’ having students perform their service by doing administrative tasks in school offices. A spokesman for the Prince George’s system, for example, said a student answers phones and does filing in his office.
“It fulfills the requirement, and it gives school-to-work training,” countered Ms. Richards, who stressed that the district has many students also working on river cleanups or with senior citizens. “It’s a nice option for students who are not comfortable working in a nursing home.”
Despite complaints that required student service amounts to involuntary servitude, critics haven’t quelled interest in the state mandate.
Maryland lawmakers this year introduced a bill to abolish the state mandate, but it failed to move. The U.S. Supreme Court has three times declined to hear cases challenging districtwide requirements. (“Court Holds Service Rule Does Not Violate Rights,” Jan. 10, 1996.)
In a recent weekly radio address, President Clinton challenged other states to adopt programs similar to Maryland’s. Allowing young people community-service opportunities will be one goal of the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future, to be held in Philadelphia April 27-29.
Led by Mr. Clinton, former President George Bush, and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, the national conference on volunteering aims to give children an ongoing relationship with a caring adult, safe places and structured activities during nonschool hours, and an education toward a marketable skill.
As an incentive toward community service, the president also made a pitch for his new National Service Scholars program. Launched this month by the Corporation for National Service, the $3 million program will provide at least $500 in scholarship funds for each school that can raise another $500 for a student the school recognizes for performing community service.