Is K-12 community service a good idea?

10 Jan

For the past several years the idea of community service in K-12 grades has been deemed a good idea. The National Center for Education Statistics posted the following article, Service-Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools at their site. Among the findings are:

Incorporating service-learning into K-12 schools is a growing area of interest to educators. Like community service, service-learning requires students to serve their communities. However, service-learning takes community service one step further by incorporating the service experiences of students directly into their school work. Service-learning has long been viewed as a possible means of improving education, with roots stretching back to late-19 th -and early 20 th -century. For example, John Dewey, an advocate of service-learning, believed that students would learn more effectively and become better citizens if they engaged in service to the community and had this service incorporated into their academic curriculum (Dewey, 1916). Though first suggested over a century ago, the incorporation of service-learning into the curriculum did not begin in earnest until the early 1970s, and it has only been in the last decade that extensive reform efforts have emerged.

Legislative reform over the past 10 years has set in motion a growing national emphasis on increasing students’ involvement with their local communities and linking this service to academic study through service-learning. The National and Community Service Act of 1990, through the Serve America program, and the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, through the Learn and Serve America program, provided support for service-learning activities in elementary and secondary schools (Corporation for National Service, 1999). In addition, through programs such as AmeriCorps, the federal government has offered opportunities to high school graduates, college students, and recent college graduates to serve local communities in exchange for stipends and payment of education loans or money toward future postsecondary education. Both Learn and Serve America and AmeriCorps are administered by the Corporation for National Service, a federal organization also created by the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. Two previous studies, one looking at high schools in 1984 and the other looking at 6-12 grade students in 1996, provide tentative evidence that service-learning has become more pervasive since the early 1980s. Based on a study conducted in 1984, researchers reported that 27 percent of all high schools (public and private) in the United States offered some type of community service and 9 percent of all high schools offered service-learning, defined as curriculum-related service programs (Newmann and Rutter, 1985). The 1996 National Household Education Survey (NHES), conducted by NCES, found that 49 percent of all students in grades 6 -12 participated in community service (U. S. Department of Education, 1997). Of the students participating in community service, 56 percent reported that their community service was incorporated into the curriculum in some way.

Although, the idea of a community service requirement has been growing, there are challenges.

Douglas Quenqua’s 2008 New York Times article, Good Deeds: The Backlash describes some of the challenges.

Cynics call these programs a form of forced altruism. Proponents say that they widen students’ horizons while getting service work done. Either way, the backlash has begun: not only do college admissions officers roll their eyes at bogus-sounding claims, but high schools are scaling back the requirements, acknowledging that a lot of the so-called service is meaningless.

When Lauren Swierczek took over last year as director of community service at Riverdale Country School, a private school in the Bronx whose students hail mainly from Manhattan (tuition: about $35,000 a year), she was troubled by the program she inherited. “What I was finding was that the fixation was more on hours than acts of service,” she said. Worse still, some students “weren’t actually doing it,” she said. “Documents were forged.”

Students from wealthy families were “knocking out their service hours with one total trip,” like a three-week summer jaunt to Costa Rica or the Galápagos Islands, Ms. Swierczek said. These teen tours, which cost $4,000 or more, use as a selling point the ability to rack up as many as 80 hours of community service. When they are not cleaning debris from beaches or teaching English to local schoolchildren, the travelers enjoy heavy doses of kayaking and scuba lessons.

So Ms. Swierczek abolished Riverdale’s requirement that students perform more than 100 hours of service before graduation. Instead, she decreed that all “naturally formed communities” at the school — sports teams, the school newspaper and adviser groups, to which all students belong — must tackle a community service project each year that is approved and supervised by her.

The result, she said, is a renewed focus on the charitable experience itself. “The message we want to teach our children is to live in a world bigger than their own,” she said. “It’s provided real camaraderie within the school community….

American high schools started adding community service requirements to their curriculums about 15 years ago. The practice had been around for decades at Jesuit schools, but began catching on at prep schools in the 1990s, with public schools quickly following suit. It didn’t hurt that colleges looked favorably on applicants who could claim hundreds of hours of charity work before they had even gotten their driver’s licenses.

The requirements became so popular — despite some unsuccessful legal challenges asserting that forced volunteerism was an oxymoron — that states began adopting them. Maryland now requires students to perform 75 hours of community service before graduation, and the District of Columbia requires 100 hours. Florida, Iowa and Rhode Island have granted local boards or districts the authority to set up their own programs.

In New York State, where schools set their own policies, requirements of 100 hours or more have grown common. (As always, New York tends to do things big: President-elect Barack Obama has suggested setting a national goal of 50 hours a year for all middle and high school students.)

BUT critics say that what started as a dignified attempt to instill a sense of noblesse oblige in high school students has devolved into an unseemly obsession with hours — not counting the ones that parents spend chauffeuring teenagers to soup kitchens. When students are in a panic over how to fill their hours, it leads to a debasement of community service that mistakes quantity for quality, these critics say. It also can prompt some teenagers to exaggerate their deeds, or, in the case of those from wealthier families, simply to buy their hours.

Alfie Kohn addresses the issue of community service hours in a Washington Post article.

Kohn opines in the article, Mandated community service: Risks and potential:

First of all, I have some concerns about bland activities undertaken by individual students. If, however, you were to redefine “community service” as an opportunity for collective action, genuine democratic involvement, and work for social justice — that would be as exciting as it is rare. (See Joseph Kahne & Joel Westheimer’s article “Teaching Democracy: What Schools Need to Do” in the September 2003 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, as well as other writings by both of these authors.)

Second, for anything of value to come out of this, students need to be involved at all points — in thinking about the rationale for doing some sort of service and in working together to plan every detail of the activities: deciding democratically how many options will be available to each student and discussing the rationale for each option, making contact with people in the community to set things up, making arrangements to evaluate the activities themselves as well as the students’ experiences afterwards, and so on.

The process probably ought to be framed as “How can we make our town/ our state / our country /the world a better place? What needs doing? Who requires our care and our help?” — rather than “How can we fulfill this requirement?” Sandwiching the activity itself between planning (before) and reflection (after) — and having the students play a key role in every stage (rather than just giving a menu of options to each student individually) — could turn out to be as valuable, both intellectually and socially, as the activities themselves.

Finally, what one doesn’t do can be as important as what one does. I hope it goes without saying that any benefit potentially derived from this activity would likely be wiped out by (1) rewarding students for their participation or (2) setting up some sort of competition between students (individuals or groups).

Some mandates are inherently useless, if not counterproductive, and should be actively resisted. (See under: No Child Left Behind) But my hunch is that this lemon can be made into lemonade. For school administrators to treat students the same way the administrators are treated by policymakers would instead be to turn salmon into salmonella.

The answer regarding whether community service programs are valuable for a particular school or individual student depends upon what the goal is and at the end of the project what was the accomplishment?

Community Service. Org has Community Service Ideas and the Top 7 Questions to Ask Yourself:

1. What are my skills?

Community Service organizations utilize a wide skill set, so there are just as many community service ideas as there are organizations. When seeking to commit your time to volunteering it is important to identify what you have to offer….

2. What are my logistical requirements?

Any community service ideas you might have must be feasible in order to achieve them. Organizations require dependability, even if you can only come in to help once a month, it is important for the organizers to know the schedule you intend to keep….

3. What duration works for me?

How many evenings, weekends, or days are you willing to commit to volunteering?  Sometimes, the need for some form of income might influence the level of this commitment.  Other times, volunteering can be committing yourself and your time to do something for an organization in order to build up your resume.  On the other hand, volunteering can represent a way to give back to your community and enrich your life by building instant connections with others.

4. What’s my style?

Are you an instant gratification person, or does delay work?

5. What do I believe in?

There are many organizations that help those in need.  From health issues like breast cancer awareness, to childrens  homes, and autism awareness organizations.  To figure out where you want to spend your time, and select a non-profit you would be most likely to return to, choose a major area of interest….

6. What type of non-profit am best suits me?

This question dove tails into “What do I believe in?” and “What are my skills?” But non-profits comprise a wide range of categories.  The categories below seem to define the majority of organizations.  The first three below are what we generally think of when we hear the word “charity…”

7. What does my research say?

Last but not least, when reviewing community service ideas, you should look at the research. All non-profits are companies, but some act like it more than others.  By reviewing the website of your organization of choice, looking over any printed materials and checking up on how the non-profit is conducted you can decide if it’s your type of place….

Whatever decision is made regarding community service, they key is to make a real contribution and not just fill up time.

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

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