Should kindness be mandatory? Parents, administrators, and schoolchildren are split over the question of required community service. Many middle- and high schools set a quota of hours per year, and expect their students to deliver. But the question remains: does mandating community engagement improve youth development? Or is it simply another marsh to slog through on the path to graduation, without any real long-term benefit for the student “volunteer?”
Interestingly, Maryland is the only state to require its schools to incorporate service learning into their required curricula, rather than allowing institutions to determine such requirements themselves. Schools outside the state, however, have the option of limiting service requirements – or cancelling them altogether.
Administrators opposed to mandatory service requirements argue that once volunteering is required, it is no longer volunteering. Because they aren’t self-motivated to complete their work in the community, students don’t develop their understanding of civic values or truly engage with those they help. The work becomes, as Sarah E. Helms writes in her study on service learning, “homework for school.” Indeed, Helms goes on to suggest that though required service may boost engagement in middle schoolers, older high school students are actually less likely to volunteer.
In short: requiring service leads to lower rates of engagement in the long term.
Additionally, some administrators shy away from requiring community service because they worry about the burden the time commitment places on the students. This is a particular concern for districts that face high rates of poverty. As William R. Bolton, superintendent of the Copiague district in New York, commented in a NY Times article: “Many of our children work to make money because a lot of them are supporting themselves […] We are a 50 percent poverty district and 60 percent minority.” In cases such as Bolton’s, hours of required service would be an unacceptable strain on a student’s free time once added to work and study commitments.
Suffice to say, community service isn’t the shoo-in policy it might appear to be at first. However, the fact that student service aids youth development is unquestionable. Other studies conducted on the effects of Maryland’s service requirement have found that “students who volunteer more frequently tend to be higher-achieving, more engaged in their communities, and less prone to risky behaviors as adolescents. Moreover, service learning in particular has been found to improve students’ engagement in school and reduce their risk of dropping out.”
There’s no doubt about it – community service has a positive effect on those who volunteer consistently. And unfortunately for those who would reject service requirements outright, the question of student volunteerism needs to be considered. When surveyed, even frequent student volunteers admitted that they would never have volunteered initially if they hadn’t been required to do so.
So the question becomes: How can schools encourage students to volunteer without losing the positive, self-motivated aspect of volunteerism or infringing on needed free time? The answer most likely lies with how the requirements are implemented.
Ideally, quality volunteer opportunities would be integrated into a student’s academic curricula. As Janet Delaney, head of San Diego City School’s Partnerships in Education program is quoted by the School Superintendents Association, “[Community service] brings learning alive. It makes it real […] One of the things public education has struggled with forever is finding real-life context. That’s what service learning does.” Moreover, Delaney reports that service learning not only engages students in their communities, but boosts their attendance and performance rates at school.
It’s simple: we need quality community service programs in our schools. It isn’t enough to mandate a number of service hours, or simply talk about the value of community engagement – real work has to be put into making service an educational experience for students. If built with care, these programs could kickstart some real, positive change for students as learners and community members.