WASHINGTON – To earn their state-mandated service hours, Maryland students have designed school recycling programs, volunteered at animal shelters and helped the homeless.
And in Kent County, they wiped off desks and swept floors after school.
Unlike their peers across the state, one-third of Chestertown Middle School’s eighth-grade students earned 40 of the required 75 service-learning hours this year by helping custodians for two hours after school a few days each week.
Wayne Bedwell started the program in 2002 after he overheard two guidance counselors say they were worried that students were entering high school without any hours to their credit.
“I disagree with service-learning hours,” said Bedwell, the head custodian at Chestertown Middle. “But these are 11- and 12-year-old students, and if I can help them, I’m going to help them.”
But critics question whether the program meets service-learning standards that Maryland students have been required to fulfill for nearly 12 years.
Maryland students must earn 75 service-learning hours to graduate — the only statewide policy in the nation. Officials say service-learning is different from community service because it must relate to what students are learning in the classroom.
That is why most service-learning coordinators in the state balked at the Chestertown program.
“Essentially it comes down to this: The service-learning . . . is intended to benefit the community,” said Joshua Fradel, the service coordinator for Worcester County. “Not that the community can’t be the school, but the key is, how do we know that’s a need?”
But the executive director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance, which oversees service-learning for the state, said the program counts if students are learning about the custodian’s job and respect for the school. Luke Frazier noted that similar programs based on the school community have existed before.
“There are a lot of ways to define service-learning,” Frazier said.
“Honestly and candidly, there are better service-learning projects that may extend out in the community,” he said. “But I can’t fault a school, especially a middle school that might have problems with transportation, for trying to create something that links together service and character.”
The state provides broad guidelines, but leaves most decisions up to local officials, Frazier said.
But most local coordinators still expressed reservations, including a fear that labor unions would oppose a program in which a volunteer does the work of a paid employee.
“State guidelines indicate we cannot use students to do what other people are paid to do,” said Daniel Savoy, the Wicomico County coordinator.
But Bedwell said his local union — which he heads — sees no conflict.
“We’re talking about 11- and 12-year-old children,” he said. “They’re not taking anybody’s job. How can an 11- and 12-year-old go and take this job? It’s impossible.”
And the Maryland State Teachers Association said it strongly backs Bedwell.
“We’re not looking at it as volunteerism replacing working hours,” said Casey Newton, an MSTA spokeswoman. “It is simply mentoring. It hasn’t been an issue thus far with us, as far as a union background. We’re proud of Wayne’s initiative to get involved.”
Bedwell argued that, contrary to what critics say, cleaning the school is a community need.
“Our school reflects on our community so it does tie into the community,” he said. “We have parents and the community come to our school everyday and tell us how beautiful the building is. So it does reflect on the community — big time.”
Not only does it give the children pride in the school but, under Bedwell’s program, students help with small jobs that the “custodians would never get around to doing.”
“They would dust areas we couldn’t get to. They would scrub table tops, wash desks,” he said, adding that the students never handle dangerous chemicals or equipment — not even vacuums.
Some coordinators excused the program, saying smaller counties have to find new opportunities for their students.
Montgomery County coordinator Pam Meador said she would never approve such a program, but could understand if smaller counties were “hard-pressed” for non-profit organizations to work with.
In Somerset County, which has about the same number of students as Kent County, service-learning coordinator Conal Turner said his schools have a similar program designed as vocational training for high school students at the career and technology schools. Students generally do not use it for service-learning hours, but they could.
“They volunteer hours and assist the custodian, and it could be counted toward service-learning hours,” he said.
But critics of Bedwell’s program may not have to worry for long. He said it may not continue next year.
“The kids in the next class are not so enthusiastic,” he said.
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