Third-graders are selling pickles at a school in Kalamazoo, Mich., to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims, and here in Bethesda, high school students are collecting thousands of backpacks for needy children. There are read-a-thons, talent shows and pizza parties being thrown across the country -- all held with the purpose of helping Americans in distress.

But in a marriage of compassion and convenience, some students moved by the victims' plight have also been able to help themselves by earning credits toward their school's service requirement.

Thousands of schools across the nation require some form of service from their students. Maryland was the first and remains the only state that has made it a requirement for a high school diploma. No one is questioning the enormous compassion and can-do attitude among young people. But for those who have supported or opposed mandatory service, the recent outpouring has reopened the debate on whether compassion can be taught.

"Is it a good idea to make it mandatory?" Bernice Lerner, director of Boston University's Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, asked about service. "It depends very much on the program. Sometimes they are done very well, and sometimes they are not. If you get the right person in charge, and they are doing it thoughtfully, giving students an opportunity to reflect and have an educational component involved, it can be very strong.

"You want to aim to do some soul-turning."

That may not be what often happens in these programs -- a Frost Middle School student, for example, earned credit hours for collecting trash at a Bethesda community baseball game, learning from the experience that "I never want to be a garbage man."

But supporters say that short of a national disaster, in times when society more naturally obsesses on Brad and Angelina than the underprivileged, schools seeking to turn out well-rounded citizens need to nurture a habit of helping.

Although educators debate whether compassion can actually be taught, many agree that it can be modeled and that it is as important as math and science, said Pamela Meador, coordinator for student service learning in Montgomery County. And something less than a turn of the soul as a result is worthwhile, too.

Detractors say that it is counterintuitive to force people to volunteer and that making it mandatory defeats the very notion of instilling a lifelong habit because it breeds resentment. Also, crafty students can get the requirement done without much thought. Some say it is the responsibility of home and church, not schools, to foster morality. Others worry that some students who do endless community service, well beyond the requirement, are simply trying to pad their college applications.

And then, Meador said, there are the parents who "complain that their kids are just too busy for this. He has basketball, tennis, no time."

In Montgomery, which has the state's largest public school system, students can choose from dozens of approved programs or find one themselves to complete their service.

They are encouraged to start earning their required 60 credit hours of public service early in middle school, in large part because it is easier to learn good habits at a younger age, said Teresa Salzano, the student service coordinator at Frost.

Salzano opposed the mandatory program when it began 13 years ago, but she has since changed her mind, saying she has seen children learn valuable lessons about themselves and the world by performing service. One of the important ones is that even a young child can make a difference in someone else's life.

"Some students may not see value in it until they actually do it," she said. "And some may never see the value. But enough do."

Katrina Hauprich, 12, a seventh-grader at Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Burtonsville, is one who does. Although she has until the end of her senior year to complete her requirement, she already completed it -- by working with deaf students this summer -- and wants to continue performing service.

"It's really fun, usually," she said. "I don't do it just for the hours. You get to meet a lot of kids. It's fun to work with them."

Although some students may think that service programs are a new form of torture devised by their teachers, the push for community service has been developing since the start of the 1900s when school systems did seek to teach morality, believing such lessons would create more well-rounded individuals.

There are numerous small studies showing various academic benefits of public service projects, including a decline in absenteeism and an improvement in grades, but nobody knows how long the lessons last and whether these young people grow into adults who readily engage in projects to help others.

Still, the short-term outlook has many teachers, principals and parents across the country thrilled with the voluntary student reaction to Katrina and impressed with the efforts to raise funds.

"Students are also going out of their way to help each other, which has reinforced a positive culture in our school," Scott Murphy, principal of William H. Farquhar Middle School in Olney, wrote in an e-mail.

And, he quipped, it's "a nice alternative to bullying."

Anna Spoon, 13, left, and Devin Sutliff, 13, of Roanoke find an easy way to help victims of the hurricane.