ANNAPOLIS – Faced with a state mandate to perform 75 hours of community service, students in Caroline County’s Colonel Richardson High School decided to lobby for repairs to the aging Dover Bridge.
They researched the swing span’s history, surveyed residents, presented their findings and met with legislators and state officials. Their efforts paid off with a $250,000 state grant to repair the 60-year-old bridge this year.
When an Annapolis High School life sciences class was faced with the same community service mandate, it began taking the temperature and other environmental readings outside the school.
The work rotates between class members over the year, with each having to make the recordings about twice a year. For about two hours of actual work, students will get 10 hours toward the community-service requirement.
Critics say the disparity between the two projects points up the fact that community service standards have fallen sharply as school systems rush to help students fulfill their requirements.
Annapolis High School sophomore Michael Goss, for one, agrees.
“There are some projects out there that are good,” said Michael, who does not think he deserves the credit he will get for his life sciences class project. “But at our school, they’re not worthwhile.”
Other students say they have fulfilled their service requirements through projects like canned food drives, classes about drug use or other simple tasks — even by donating money.
They receive just as much credit as the students did for the Dover bridge project.
“Most students think it’s a joke,” said Del. James Rzepkowski, R-Anne Arundel.
He and others have said that the quality of the program began falling as soon as educators began merging student community service hours into their class lessons.
That approach, known as “service learning,” has taken the noble idea of prodding students toward volunteering in their community and turned it into little more than busywork, critics charge.
Educators said the approach became necessary in 1996 when school surveys showed that nearly a quarter of rising seniors had not started their projects or were nowhere near completing their required 75 hours. School systems began incorporating the requirement into classes to ensure that students graduated on time.
It apparently worked — 99 percent of last year’s seniors had completed their 75 hours of service.
Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said he opposed community service both as a parent and a teacher. But if it is going to be a requirement, he said, service learning is the best way to get it done.
“Some students have reasonable, ready and safe access to a community service project,” Pence said. “Maybe for them it will work just fine, but including it in the curriculum makes it more manageable for the kids and the school system.”
But making the program part of a class has had varying results.
Throughout the state, students fulfill their service time in different ways: mowing neighbor’s lawns, making posters, teaching foreign language to elementary students or giving historical tours, among other projects.
But many students said they do not feel they are really doing anything worthwhile.
“I don’t see what it has to do with graduation,” said Danny Bassford, a sophomore at Queen Anne’s County High School. For his requirement, Bassford has done bird-watching and written letters to a local retirement home.
The program’s opponents in the General Assembly agree with Danny, saying the program should have nothing to do with graduation.
Rzepkowski tried unsuccessfully this year to exempt Anne Arundel County schools from the service requirement. Each year since the program began in 1993, there have been bills to eradicate the requirement. All have failed.
Rzepkowski said Anne Arundel County students have fulfilled their service hours by cleaning lockers, scraping gum off desks and posting anti-drug posters around their schools. The work is done during class time and it does not help the community, he said.
“They’re promoting a program that really doesn’t exist,” he said.
But supporters of service learning say that students have benefitted from the program and that educators simply need to work harder to make sure every service learning project is worthwhile.
“There has to be better training of school personnel,” said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, an early proponent of the plan. “Parents, students, teachers and non-profit organizations all have to get involved.”
Eliminating the requirement is not an option, she said, but improving it should be a priority.
“The right issue now is how do we provide high-quality programs that really engage the students?” she said.
Townsend said teachers have incorporated the requirement in very effective ways, highlighting the Dover Bridge project as an example.
Opponents say that project is just an example of good teaching.
“They should be doing that anyway,” said Rzepkowski.
Despite some faults in the implementation, supporters say service learning is the best of both worlds: students learn valuable lessons, serve the community and take care of their requirement, all at the same time.
“It’s a wonderful context to apply the lessons learned in class,” said Elaine Gorman, director for secondary education for Baltimore County. “Service learning provides vehicles for students beyond the classroom.”
Students agree with keeping the requirement as a part of class, even if they don’t want it.
“I really don’t mind that it’s done in school,” said Danny Bassford. “If we have to do it for school, it might as well be done in school.”