Mary Wagner gets insistent with her students at this time of year. It’s 10 weeks until graduation day, and she’s been nudging seniors at James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring to finish their community service hours.
“We keep making it clear: This is not optional,” says Wagner, whose last count showed 93 of the school’s 378 seniors had come up short on the Maryland state graduation requirement.
In many schools in the Washington region, community service hours take on a new-found urgency in spring, as students nearing graduation look to put in time at soup kitchens, charitable events, libraries, parks, recreation centers and retirement homes.
In Montgomery County, 26 percent of seniors had outstanding hours in the second week of March, according to school system figures. In Prince George’s County, the number was 28 percent at about the same point.
“I always tell them, ‘Spring break is the perfect opportunity to get things done,’ ” says Yvette Wright, a counselor at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. “Kids tend to procrastinate and wait until the last minute.”
In Maryland, students must earn 75 student-service learning hours to graduate, though many of those hours may be embedded within academic courses. D.C. public schools require 100 hours of community service. Virginia doesn’t have a statewide mandate, but many students may do such work through certain classes, organizations or on their own.
Ideally, students land work that is related to a strong interest or career possibility, Wright says. Her students have put in time at an animal shelter, a food pantry, an arboretum, a hospital and the National Institutes of Health — not only helping others, she said, but also gaining practical experience and boosting college applications.
Wright says she’s noticed that amid a renewed focus on the issue, “kids are understanding the purpose, that service learning is about giving back and getting involved.”
In spring, some popular community service spots are flooded with calls.
“We are more than overwhelmed with high school kids who want to do service hours,” said John Krivak, a librarian at the Prince George’s County Memorial Library in Hyattsville.
In D.C., Peter MacPherson, a parent and Ward 6 education activist, said the service requirement is worthwhile but can be daunting. His daughter, involved in a rigorous academic program at School Without Walls and competitive swimming for many years, has put in more than 35 hours since January, helping at a library, a school, a science fair, a pet adoption event and a museum, as well as tutoring children, he said.
“It’s a scramble,” he said.
At Montgomery’s Clarksburg High School, Natoscha McKinnon, head of the counseling department, also notes that many students have competing obligations. For some, jobs and family responsibilities are a priority, she said. “They understand the importance of it,” she said. “It’s just a matter of finding time to fit it in.”
At Clarksburg, just under 30 percent of students still have hours to document, said Ed Dalton, who coordinates the effort. Still, he said, “it all does come together in the end,” adding that he could recall only once when a student did not complete the hours and could not graduate with classmates.
Last year, fewer than 10 Montgomery County students, in a senior class of more than 10,000, failed to graduate for lack of service hours.
At Asbury Methodist Village, a continuing-care retirement community in Gaithersburg, volunteer manager Sharon Bennett says she’s seen an uptick in student interest as graduation nears. “We have a big mass of seniors right now trying to get their hours done,” she said.
Still, Bennett says, the teens contribute a lot — helping dementia patients use iPods, reading to the vision-impaired, playing bingo, providing simple companionship.
On Friday, high school students were working with Asbury residents preparing packages of food for residents of a homeless shelter.
Aiyla Vallier, 17, a Clarksburg High senior performing community service at Asbury for the first time, said she liked the work and hoped to keep going after she met her school obligations.
“They’re like my grandparents,” she said of the residents, recalling one woman who smiled and joked with her. “I like being around the seniors.”
Some students take on community work regularly.
In D.C., Benjamin Banneker Academic High School requires 270 hours of service. In Montgomery, students who earn 260 hours or more are recognized with a purple tassel at graduation. In Prince George’s, students with extra hours are eligible to compete for a scholarship.
“We’re teaching them global citizenship and how you give back to the community,” said Banneker Principal Anita Berger.
Karen Osorio, a 17-year-old senior in Prince George’s County, says she has completed nearly 200 hours, working at an elementary school in the summer and with a softball team for developmentally disabled students.
“I always think it’s good to give back to the community and also to gain experience,” she said, pointing out that she has learned workplace skills she would not have otherwise acquired.
At Blake High School, Wagner, the school’s coordinator for student-service learning hours, says seniors and their families are notified of outstanding service requirements in a variety of ways, including letters, robocalls and meetings.
Many students consult the county’s volunteer center Web site for opportunities. But Wagner also has created a wall for service opportunities just outside her classroom.
One recent day, she checked in with several seniors during lunch. “What are you going to do?” she asked, looking for specifics.
One student said he had done many hours but neglected to hand in his paperwork.
Tyronne Okunoren, 18, said he had two service gigs, one at his younger brother’s elementary school and another at the National Capital Trolley Museum. He was nearly done, he said.
“At first I thought it was going to be a chore,” he recalled. “But after the first week, I started to get into it.” He says the work gives him a view beyond the classroom: “It kind of lets me take a break from academics and focus on the real world.”