Maryland high school students who just finished their junior year but haven't logged one single hour of community service toward the 75-hour graduation requirement need not panic. Nor do they need to leave the school building.
Just by building sets for the school musical, writing for the yearbook or keeping the baseball team's scorebook, their requirement can be met -- and, officially, the community will have been served.
In 1992, Maryland became the first state to make students perform community service in order to graduate -- a requirement also adopted by the District and several individual school districts. The rule, which mandates completion of either 75 hours of what the state calls "service learning" or a comprehensive school-sponsored program, has been controversial from the start: One side insists that "mandatory volunteerism" is an oxymoron; the other, that citizenship is a crucial part of education.
There is a consensus that the service learning requirement has gotten many students doing good deeds. And officials point out that most students have the right spirit.
But the debate has broadened to whether the schools are allowing students to meet the requirement through unworthy activities.
Montgomery and Prince George's schools give credit for several extracurricular activities, such as band or being the manager of a sports team, that many students regard as just part of the high school experience rather than as doing good for others. Howard County credits work for the newspaper, yearbook and student government, while Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties don't credit any extracurriculars that aren't wholly focused on service to the community. District officials said they, too, give no credit for participation in school clubs.
Montgomery, though, counts several classes that don't necessarily include a community component. School officials call it "service," but the students can't figure it out.
Paula Malozowski, 17, received credit for eight hours of service after taking photography at Walter Johnson High School: "It doesn't say anywhere you get community service hours for it -- they just show up. You're like, `Whoa.' "
Brad Epstein, 16, received credit for 10 hours after taking an accounting class at Watkins Mill High School: "I don't know -- it just comes with it."
David Arnold, 18, received credit for the 20 or so hours he spent calling lighting cues as the stage manager for "Hello, Dolly!" at Thomas S. Wootton High School: "I don't know how they really twisted it, but they gave me credit. It's a joke."
In accordance with state guidelines, Montgomery officials said, those students are supposed to have reflected on how those classes and activities can help the community. In theory, but not always in practice, photography students can display their pictures in a senior center. Accounting students can help indigent neighbors file tax returns. In the case of "Hello, Dolly!," one of its performances was given for middle school students. Students are credited for band rehearsals, officials say, because they give shows outside school.
Officials in Montgomery acknowledge that there are "bugs in the system," such as the photography credit, and they said they are working them out. But they defend the principle. Even if the only beneficiaries of activities like stage crew or yearbook are other students, said Brian Porter, spokesman for the Montgomery County schools, they constitute service. "The definition of community also includes the school community," he said.
Participating in extracurricular activities, then, is working toward the betterment of the school and, therefore, the community. "Is it the same caliber as working in a soup kitchen for the homeless? Maybe not," Porter said. "But is it community service? Absolutely."
The state's top official for community service calls that argument "specious." Luke Frazier, executive director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance, said that getting credit for something like stage crew "certainly does not meet the spirit of service learning, which is supposed to be deep and meaningful projects that help students understand what it means to be a citizen. . . . I think there's a lot more to being a part of a community than doing something that's personally interesting that you want to do anyway."
A U.S. Department of Education survey released last year found that volunteerism was highest in schools that arranged service activities, not the ones that required them. Along those lines, many area counties now embed service learning in required classes, so that by ninth grade or so, all students have met the state requirement. In Montgomery, students can get half their hours by then.
But students who will be seniors next year, and those who just graduated, still have, or had, service to complete on their own.
For them, counting hours for extracurriculars is "a godsend," said Laurie Rodich, whose daughter Alexis did plenty of service outside of Sherwood High School before she graduated this month -- as a camp counselor, organizing disaster drills -- but got her official credit from the lunch periods and evenings she spent at the school newspaper.
"They spend hours working on this, and they should get credit for it," Rodich said. Service "isn't just going to nursing homes or the other standard stuff."
All the students interviewed for this report performed dozens of hours of activities that certainly are community service: scooping stew at soup kitchens, volunteering at day-care centers, tutoring classmates.
But even well-meaning, legitimate activities can be stretched into something else. Among the types of service that students said was approved: a semester's worth of hours for working as a teacher's aide, where the daily grind mainly included doing homework, reading e-mail and checking out ESPN.com. Three hours credited for stopping at the Safeway and picking up a box of cookies on the way to the senior citizens' prom, and 720 hours for a month-long can drive.
Alice Haskins, administrative coordinator for Howard County schools, said that although administrators try, it's difficult to make sure every person applying for and approving credit does so with the proper gravity. "We do know that they're monitoring," she said. "How well they're monitoring, I can't tell you."
Josh Menditch, 18, who just graduated from Walter Johnson, spent hundreds of hours coaching at basketball camp and chatting with residents of the Hebrew Home in Rockville "to brighten up their day." He feels like people who scam the system, or meet their service requirement only by playing in the band, do so to their own detriment.
"I enjoyed it," he said, "so I feel like it's their loss. It's more than going to school and doing stuff there. It's getting out in the community and helping people."