ANNAPOLIS – Drew Tull, a junior at Colonel Richardson High School in Caroline County came to Annapolis to see if he could really make a difference in his government.
Two years ago, as part of a service learning project connected with his government class, he lobbied for money to fix the Dover Bridge, which many nearby residents say is unsafe.
Now he was in town again for a meeting with a state senator, but it was not just a civics lesson. The work counted toward the service learning requirement that all Maryland students must fulfill before graduation.
All Maryland seniors must complete 75 hours of service to the community, with local school districts specifying the details of the projects. It’s a noble goal to teach public service, proponents say, but critics say when all districts are doing it differently, that can be unfair.
Tull helped prepare a computerized slide presentation, a Web page, a skit, and pamphlets – all aimed at getting state funding to replace or repair the bridge, which links smaller neighborhoods to hospitals and businesses in bigger cities, like Easton.
But funding hasn’t come yet. “The governor promised us a bridge in his re- election speech, and we never got it,” Tull said.
Tull and his classmates met with Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, on Feb. 24. They’re unlikely to get a new bridge this year, but transportation bills in the House and Senate could provide funding for new construction or repairs.
The State Board of Education adopted the service learning policy in 1992 to teach children to be active in their communities.
Tull’s social studies teacher, Jane Painter, said she hoped her students also learned something about state government in the process.
That’s the goal of service learning: to combine preparation in class with community action and reflection after the event. But every county seems to have a different way to accomplish that goal.
For instance, Carroll County high school students can accumulate 30 hours for taking child development or ecology classes and earn 10 hours for sign language or yearbook production.
In Montgomery County, students garnered hours with a book drive, singing at nursing homes, and preparing Halloween bags for children in Head Start programs. Students there also volunteer at Holy Cross Hospital, the Round House Theater, Boys and Girls Clubs, summer camps, and public libraries.
In Prince George’s County, students must complete 36 hours in an independent project outside the school. In Calvert County, students fulfill almost the entire requirement in seventh grade, when they take an environmental education class focused on the Chesapeake Bay.
The disparity among the counties is unfair, said Rhonda Robinson, who has logged more than 100 hours. “I think everyone should have an equal amount of hours,” she said.
Last year, the Bladensburg High School junior helped paint lockers, ceilings, and a goal post at her school. This year she is organizing a Christmas-In-April program, where more than a dozen students from her school will paint a local house and do yard work.
Service learning is something vital to the education process, said a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office on Service and Volunteerism. “Democracy is dependent on an engaged and active citizenry. If we’re not showing kids how to do that, we’re not doing our jobs,” said Maggie O’Neill, director of volunteerism. “We shouldn’t leave it up to serendipity.”
Beth Blackwell, a junior at Colonel Richardson High School, said service learning helps dispel negative images of teens.
“I think it’s a good thing because teens are usually stereotyped as delinquents,” she said. “It teaches you how to get involved in your community.”
Critics of the requirement say the principles of volunteerism, such as generosity and compassion, can’t be learned when the work is mandated. Volunteerism should come from a genuine personal desire to help others, not just a need to meet graduation specifications.
The requirement should apply only to the first two years of high school, not the junior and senior years, Tull said.
“Colleges look mainly at your last two years. You need more time to focus on your school work,” he explained.
Several counties-including Kent, Howard, Dorchester, Caroline, Worcester and Cecil-have already implemented such a policy.