A bill before the education and cultural affairs committee would make community service a requirement for high school students to graduate.
This bill requires a high school student to complete community service as specified by the high school attended by the student in order to obtain a diploma. I purposefully left the bill open-ended and less specific in regards to its implementation. Local control is reinforced in the bill as schools can ultimately implement a program that fits best their model for educating students. If a school or school district already has an existing community service requirement, nothing will change for them. This will affect schools that have no such requirement on the books, but because it’s more open-ended you could have a high school class go clean up a local park for an hour and that would meet the requirements of the program while another district require 30 hours of service. It is up to their creative discretion.
Many states have moved in this direction, including Maryland. In 1992, the Maryland State Board of Education mandated service-learning participation as a graduation standard. It developed two options: a 75-hour requirement and a locally designed program.
Why is this necessary? There are wide-ranging benefits and skill sets learned for students who volunteer, including higher academic achievement, enhanced problem solving skills and increased civic engagement.
It can also help to keep youth out of trouble. According to a study done through the cooperative extension at the University of Nevada, youth who volunteer just one hour or more a week are 50 percent less likely to abuse alcohol, cigarettes, become pregnant or engage in other destructive behavior. In the same study, these young people are three times more likely to volunteer as adults and with teenagers already volunteering 2.4 billion hours annually equating to a positive $34.3 billion impact on the U.S. economy. Of that $1 billion from 350,000 volunteers positively impacted the Maine economy. This is something that could be considered a long-term investment stimulus right here in the state of Maine.
All of that aside, volunteering helped me in different ways. It helped me discover my voice, passion and acquire skills I couldn’t in the typical classroom environment. This handson experiential work is where the real learning for many students can take place.
Volunteering doesn’t always have to mean nonprofits. Students could, if it’s decided on the local level, to intern with a local business as part of the their community service project. These potential business connections, via the community service vehicle, can help stimulate the creative juices around what in fact a particular student wants to do for the rest of his or her life while at the same time providing businesses with extra help and a future employment pool to choose from.
The inclusion of business volunteering is something Bucksport is in the process of instituting. Their local school board discussed the inclusion of a 40-hour community service requirement built into their high school curriculum. They have homeroom teachers who students have for all four years handle the paperwork for each individual student. These teachers work with guidance counselors to match students with organizations and business via a list of available options that the guidance department drafts.
The Maine Department of Education does not collect data on school districts that have community service requirements for graduation, so I can’t give you a definitive answer as to how many schools have this requirement now and how successful each of those programs are for students. By passing this law and making community service a high school diploma requirement, it would be my hope that somehow this data would be collected if nothing more as verification of set requirement was met.
At Freeport High School, a service learning coordinator was hired with the purpose of assisting teachers and students in projects that address the needs of organizations – local, national and international – and that serves as a liaison with local businesses and community leaders who are interested in exploring new ways to connect students with the community and bring the community into the schools. Community service is built into the school culture there, so it doesn’t feel like an added or forced chore, but it is not a requirement yet. A similar position is also in the Sanford School District where community service is mandated and service learning is built into the curriculum on top of that.
Brunswick High School has a 30-hour community service requirement to be completed over a student’s four years at the institution. The school has a community service confirmation form that names each project. Students are encouraged to keep a service portfolio and must include a detailed report and journal of the work being accomplished on site. A written report or oral presentation can be used as a concluding component to the program.
Even our education commissioner via the Maine Commission for Community Service has pushed for more service learning incorporated into school districts across the state, but need state policy makers to follow suit. This bill seeks to encourage the continued growth of service learning by providing a hands-on experience for students via community service in every high school. We’ve been debating about how to change the educational paradigm to something more real-world and hands on, well here is a vehicle to help make it a reality for so many students that need to learn outside of the typical classroom setting like I did.
Justin Chenette is the state representative for district 134 in Saco. You can get legislative updates about the work out of the 126th Legislature at www.justinchenette.com, Facebook.com/justinforsaco, and Twitter.com/justinchenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco