Graduation Requirement: Good Deeds 'Service Learning' Gains Ground Nationally, but Critics Question Its Educational Value Series: Currents in the Curriculum: 7th in a Series

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Naeemah Fuller of Boston is performing community service for high school credit.

John Reinhard Jr. of Chapel Hill, N.C., is suing his local school board all the way to the United States Supreme Court to avoid it.

These two students show how far apart some Americans are on the concept of service learning, a controversial approach to character education that is taking hold in a growing number of America's high schools. There is no official tally, but educators estimate that 10 percent require students to perform some service to graduate, from feeding the homeless to cleaning up polluted streambeds. The concept may have its roots in the hard-driving 1980s, when educators and parents alike began to voice concerns about the values their children were absorbing. An odd collection of conservatives and liberals called for a return to volunteerism, hoping it would provide a moral compass. As a result, many school boards placed community service alongside history and geometry as a requirement. But the change spawned any number of lawsuits by parents, such as the Reinhard family, who argued that schools are overstepping their bounds. Even some in the back-to-basics movement see service learning as a distraction. Nevertheless, mandating good citizenship is clearly catching on. "There are some school districts that do a wonderful job of integrating service learning into the regular curriculum," says Kathie Christie, a researcher at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "For high school students, if they were not required to do it, they would probably not get a taste of the pleasure of doing something not for money." Surveys and studies convey a muddled picture of teen volunteerism. One recent study by Independent Sector in Washington, reports that volunteering by teens has risen 7 percent since 1992. A separate survey, conducted in 1995, found that 75 percent of teens do not currently perform community service because they don't know how or haven't been asked; 95 percent said it should be required in school. Service learning may receive its strongest field test in Maryland, which requires 75 hours of community service for high school graduation statewide. Parents, teachers unions, and religious conservatives initially opposed the 1992 mandatory-service law. But this year, as the first group to face the requirement heads toward graduation, much of the opposition has eased. "Initially, parents were afraid that service learning would take away from the basic curriculum, but actually, it enhances it," says Susan Falcone, the service-learning coordinator at Loch Raven High School in Baltimore. "Sometimes the best learning takes place outside of the classroom, dealing with real problems." Variety of reaction At Loch Raven, culinary students bake birthday cakes for a local orphanage, art students help decorate a nearby pediatric unit, and one class is gathering 1,000 "hygiene bags" full of toothbrushes, soap, and other items for the homeless. …