Spring break for seniors: Community service

The pressure is on. With weeks slipping by until senior year ends, Bianca Rodriguez is making a final push to complete the graduation requirement she overlooked for most of high school: community service.

The teenager is only about halfway done with her required 75 service hours — one of thousands of high school seniors in Maryland and the District being encouraged, prodded and flat-out nagged to find a place to volunteer. To finish up. Now.

“By the end of spring break,” a teacher urged Bianca and other students one recent day in a hallway of Wheaton High School in Montgomery County.

Twenty years after Maryland became the first state to require student service for a diploma, the senior scramble is a rite of spring. In Montgomery, 25 percent of seniors still had hours to turn in this week. In Prince George’s County, 36 percent were not yet done.

Spring break is crunch time.

“Hopefully they’re going to find something meaningful to do,” said Pam Meador, coordinator of the program for Montgomery schools.

School officials say few, if any, students have failed to graduate in recent years solely for lack of service hours. But there have been close calls. And even strong supporters say the ideal of community involvement is not always in tune with the realities of teen life.

Some students procrastinate, for years. Others are late to grasp the importance of the requirement. Some are busy with jobs, sports and school. Many do the work but miss paperwork deadlines, so they need to do more.

Sometimes charities get more volunteers than they can handle at once.

“I actually have had to turn people away,” said Elizabeth Snape of Bethesda Cares, which provides hot lunches for the homeless.

On Saturdays, when most students want to work, there are just 10 slots. In March, the group was scheduling shifts for May. Snape often suggests other ways to contribute, bringing in meals, making sandwiches to donate.

A plan to give back

Maryland’s mandate for 75 hours of “student service learning” dates to 1992, a year after the District adopted a 100-hour community service requirement. Across the country, 35 states have policies on service learning, but only Maryland has a state graduation requirement, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

In Virginia, school systems such as Fairfax and Prince William counties use student service learning in certain courses. Students in Fairfax who accumulate high levels of service hours are recognized at graduation with a service-learning cord.

“All of us want kids to intrinsically want to give back,” said Peter Noonan, an assistant Fairfax superintendent.

But forced service can backfire, he said. “My experience with kids is that when they are forced to do things, they typically don’t want to do it again,” Noonan said.

In many of Maryland’s 24 school systems, the requirement is fulfilled as students complete course work embedded with service projects. For example, a science class might look into problems at a stream, do research, come up with a plan, take action and reflect on the effect.

In Montgomery and Prince George’s County, students earn hours through service-infused classwork and outside volunteering.

“It’s a good idea, and it was certainly well-intentioned,” said Montgomery Board of Education member Michael E. Durso. “Has it turned a whole generation onto public service or even just being aware of public needs? I think the jury’s still out.”

Clearly, some students thrive.

Hayley Fixler, a senior at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, has written letters to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan since the fifth grade. “It’s been kind of life changing,” she said, recalling one year-long correspondence. “I’ve learned that you can help a total stranger.”

At last count, Hayley had amassed 1,012 hours.

Other students work as camp counselors. They pull weeds in parks. Shelve library books. Play bingo with senior citizens. Deliver mulch as part of school fundraisers. Coach children with disabilities. Lobby for legislative change.

Thinking ahead

Along the way, some find mentors or career interests. Some encounter new worlds. When it’s time to apply for college, service work tends to beef up a resume. In Montgomery, 1,743 seniors so far have earned 260 service hours or more — a mark of “meritorious service,” honored with a purple tassel at graduation.

“It’s hard to stand out to a college if all you’ve done is go to school,” said Merita Carter, manager of counseling and guidance for D.C. public schools.

Gustavo Correa, 17, has volunteered lately as a tutor at Saturday school at Wheaton High. He signed up because he was short 30 hours for graduation, he said, then was surprised by his experience with third-graders.

“I kind of like teaching the little kids,” he said.

Teacher Betsy Hellman was looking for such signs of progress one recent Thursday as she took her checklist from classroom to classroom at Wheaton, calling out students who were behind on hours.

“This is graduation,” she said. “It’s not something small.”

She asked each student: Where do you plan to volunteer? How soon?

Some have a plan. Some don’t. Every so often, she sees a blank expression that worries her — and she asks for a parent’s phone number.

“If you wait too long, you’re going to go to places, and they’re going to say, ‘We’re full,’ ” she said. “I know in the month of May, it’ll be, ‘Good luck!’ ”

At Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, 173 students — in a senior class of 375 — had not wrapped up their hours as of this week. At Wheaton, 94 of 288 still had service to complete. At Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, 45 of 452 were not done.

Schools get the word out through morning announcements, robocalls and senior meetings. Mary Wagner, who coordinates the program at Blake, said there’s a diverse mix of students on her list of 120 still short of the mark, not just those who struggle academically.

Einstein Principal Jim Fernandez said he recently pondered creating a rule: Finish your service hours before prom or miss it. Then he reconsidered. Many students work in paying jobs to help support their families, he said, or are responsible for child care at home.

“I think I want to indoctrinate them more,” Fernandez said. “I just don’t want them to miss anything they don’t have to.”

In Prince George’s County, Associate Superintendent Monica Goldson expects early April to be the difference maker. “The last bit of mad rush for seniors will typically take place during spring break,” she said.

At Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest Washington, data in late February showed that more than 60 percent of students were short on hours. But the District is lenient about deadlines for turning in forms, so it was unclear whether the students were behind on doing their service or just in reporting it.

Wilson senior Chris Jones, 18, has done triple or quadruple his obligation, having volunteered for an international service and leadership organization since 10th grade. One summer, he helped build a housing development in Los Angeles. If he could change the requirement, he would include a graded essay for each experience.

“Any way to attach meaning to the service and not just make kids do it,” he said.

Montgomery and Prince George’s counties require students to answer questions of “reflection,” which some students lament.

“When the work is as simple as delivering mulch, it can get difficult and annoying to stretch that out,” said Zane Brown, 18, of Einstein, who was far more keen on writing about a service project with wounded veterans.

A challenge for some

Some students have advantages. Their parents might drive them around to activities starting in middle school. They might attend community-service summer camps, which can cost $350 a week. They might accumulate hours for, say, a bar mitzvah or a church confirmation and use that to meet school requirements.

For others, the requirement becomes real in senior year. At Einstein, Fernandez recalled students missing graduation ceremonies but finishing up quickly afterward. “In the last eight years, I’d say it’s happened four or five times,” he said.

Richard Janampa, 19, a senior at Wheaton, said his after-school and weekend hours are focused on babysitting his younger brothers, ages 3 and 9, and keeping up with classes.

“Many students don’t have the time,” he said one day, still eight hours short.

Eva Nganga, 18, also at Wheaton, said she didn’t think to work on the requirement until last summer, when she volunteered at a library. In the last six weeks, she has tackled it head-on, doing 20 more hours. She might have been done entirely, she said, but did not file paperwork for an earlier stint as a hospital volunteer.

Some parents say it is a shame that service needs to be required at all. And some, such as Marc Hyman of Olney, suggest the state raise the bar, to 200 to 300 hours. “I just think what they have done is a good start,” he said, “and they should take it to the next level.”

Meanwhile, Bianca Rodriguez feels the deadline pressure.

“It’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to do this, or I’m not graduating,’ ” said Bianca, who did a three-week service trip to Paraguay earlier in high school but did not realize she could file for credit until after the deadline passed.

More recently, she said, “I just kind of pushed it off.”

This weekend she hopes to make headway, working at a carwash event approved by the county and perhaps a library.

“I’m on the lookout,” she said. With 101 / 2 weeks until graduation, she acknowledged, “it’s scary.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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