ODENTON – There was a sense of urgency among Doreen Koke’s seventh grade science students as they surveyed the empty beer cans and cigarette packages along the banks of Towsers Branch.
It had been a long winter. The youngsters were eager to get away from their desks and textbooks and back out to the stream behind Arundel Middle School.
Walking on a trail they have helped to build and maintain, they stopped every few feet to pick up the trash.
“We do this so the stream isn’t totally disgusting,” said 12-year-old Joe Rogers, retrieving an empty soda can.
Their activities will count toward the service learning graduation requirement that Maryland adopted in 1993, becoming the only state in the nation to require all public school students to perform community service.
The intention is to teach students their responsibility to participate in public affairs, said Dr. Dennis Younger, director of curriculum for the Anne Arundel County Public Schools.
Arundel Middle School students have also built benches for an outdoor classroom and steps down to the water for gathering water samples to test in science classes. This spring, they will plant ferns along Towsers Branch to prevent soil erosion.
Koke said service learning makes young people more sensitive to those around them. “We have some kids who have never done anything for someone else,” she said. “This gives them a chance.”
In Maryland, students must complete 75 hours of community service or a state-approved “service learning” plan developed by individual school districts. Anne Arundel County set up a 70-hour requirement that incorporates service learning into the curriculum.
Service learning is controversial. Opponents protest that it is mandatory volunteerism and shouldn’t be forced on students. The argument is the basis for a federal lawsuit in which two North Carolina students are contending that their school board’s 50-hour community service requirement is unconstitutional.
In Maryland, students who are now high school juniors will be the first statewide class expected to meet the requirement prior to graduation.
With the deadline approaching, Anne Arundel County students are in good shape. At the end of February, 93.7 percent of the district’s juniors, or 4,052 students, had completed the requirement, according to a report by the state Department of Education. Only Dorchester and Worcester counties had higher completion rates.
At the other end were Baltimore, with 87 percent of juniors showing no progress, and Baltimore County, with 41 percent showing no progress. Overall, only one-third of Maryland’s junior class had completed the requirement.
Anne Arundel officials say their success has come with working the requirement into regular class work.
“You don’t have to go out and reinvent the wheel,” said Mary Ann Buckley, a science teacher at Marley Middle School in Glen Burnie. “If you’re creative and innovative, you can do it within the curriculum.”
County students begin completing the requirement in sixth grade and finish in tenth grade. The hours are spread among classes including social studies, math, science and English. Students can also craft their own plans for service learning in collaboration with a teacher or school counselor.
Buckley recently attended the 1996 Statewide Service- Learning Conference and Fair, where eight of her students displayed their “Students Sharing Science” project.
Buckley’s seventh graders developed projects that could be done by third grade students, then taught the younger children how to do them.
The activity involved the three main components of the county’s service learning program: preparation, action and reflection.
“The planning and reflection is what makes it different than a volunteer project students may do outside of school where the activity is the focus,” said Younger, the curriculum official. “It’s what happens before and after the doing of the project that makes it education.”
To prepare, Buckley’s students not only designed the projects, but did them themselves, making sure they would teach the science concepts they wanted the third graders to learn. They made visual displays explaining how to do the projects. They met with Buckley for a tips on how to teach small children.
Action, of course, was the actual visit to the elementary schools.
Reflection meant producing a pamphlet, displays and bulletin boards explaining their project. The students also compiled a scrapbook of the third graders’ thank-you letters.
Laura Natcher said she gained new respect for her teachers after spending a day in their shoes. “It’s tough with all of those people just sitting there and staring at you,” she said. “It’s hard to be a teacher.”
Jessica Chih was excited by the experience. “I saw joy in their faces when they understood something. I loved it!” And Katie Knight, the quietest student in the group, observed, “It raised everybody’s self-esteem at least a couple of notches.” -30-