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
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
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
"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. …