Schools Take ‘Voluntary’ Out of Community Service


In at least one quarter, President Clinton’s recent call for volunteerism has not only been heard, it has become a rallying cry.

Schools are embracing community service, not just as an extracurricular pastime or padding for college applications, but as a formal part of academic programs, often a mandatory one.

“Service is becoming part of the curriculum,” said Bob Collins, director of instruction for senior high schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Both LAUSD and the Burbank Unified School District are considering requiring community service for graduation--a rule that could send armies of kids into Los Angeles neighborhoods to paint over graffiti, plant gardens and tutor youngsters.

Similar rules have spawned unintended consequences, such as the last-minute scramble by 15,000 Maryland high schoolers this spring to fulfill the state’s volunteering requirement. Maryland is the first state to make participation mandatory, requiring 75 hours of community service for graduation, effective this year.


The many programs underway in Southern California have created a new class of professionally managed volunteers in which the givers benefit as much or more than those they serve.

“Kids need to be connected to their community,” said Elena Hubbell, a Burbank Board of Education member who favors requiring service for graduation. “I haven’t heard one person say this is a bad idea.”

The concept of school-sanctioned community service is taking hold in Sacramento. The Assembly approved a bill last week requiring California public high schools to offer community service as part of their academic programs.

Another bill in the state Senate would place a similar requirement on colleges and universities, creating a Statewide Student Service Corps.

Community-service requirements have long been a part of private-school life, but “the hours that are required of kids is rising,” said Laurie Brown, director of community service and internships for the all-girl Marlborough School in Hancock Park.

Brown is a board member of the Community Service Assn., a group of L.A.-area service coordinators. The group has traditionally represented private schools, but recently, in a sign of changing times, some public school faculty have become involved as well, she said.

Community service in schools is catching on because “people are beginning to see it’s a way of revitalizing public life,” she said. “There is an increasing connection between service learning and academic programs, so it’s not just an after-school, extra activity. It becomes a very big part of [students’] daily life.”

But public schools are becoming more sophisticated about the way they approach community service. Many now incorporate volunteer experiences into classwork, said Pitzer College sociology professor Sally Raskoff, who has studied community service in schools.

“There is funding available now from foundations, government and community groups,” Raskoff said. The result is that volunteerism, a phenomenon prone to drifting in and out of fashion, “is now becoming institutionalized.”

Community service and a related concept--so-called “service-based learning"--is now required in some form in one-third of all public schools in Los Angeles County, according to Raskoff’s study, a joint effort with the University of Southern California.

A nationwide study by the Educational Research Service published in 1994 found that 36% of public schools either required or offered volunteer service.

LAUSD will look at a recommendation to require community service of all graduates districtwide next year, said Collins. “The intangibles--leadership and community service--are going to become more and more important to universities,” he explained.

The Burbank school board is considering mandating 40 hours of community service for graduation, and administrators are working on the details now. Burbank already offers class credit for community service.

Advocates say requiring community service produces graduates who are less sheltered, more well-rounded and likely to become better citizens.

Traditional civics classes “present civics to kids as a skeleton without any flesh,” said Todd Clark, executive director of the Constitutional Rights Foundation, an L.A.-based group that promotes service-based learning. Through community service, “kids will become more engaged.”

“A lot of things happen with kids that do this,” agreed Bruce Pina, career advisor at Chatsworth High School, which requires seniors to complete 20 hours of community service to participate in graduation ceremonies. “They discover future career possibilities. And they have an awareness of the community around them.”

Kelli Bollinger, 17, a senior at John Burroughs High School who volunteers in a career program for developmentally disabled classmates, said students who are required to serve “might at first think, God, it’s so dull, but they will feel great about helping afterward. That’s how I feel.”

But community service is criticized by those who say volunteer work should remain just that--voluntary, and uncompensated.

Volunteer work “is not like freshmen composition. People don’t do it because they have to,” said Chester E. Finn, senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. Finn says high school volunteerism should remain extracurricular.

And Burroughs High School sophomore David Navarro looked worried when told of the proposed requirement. “I just don’t have time to do anything like that,” he said. “There’s too much pressure as it is.”

Maryland, which has led the nation with its community service requirement, is feeling the time-crunch issue keenly as the state’s first crop of seniors to fall under the new rules approach graduation.

Halfway through the school year, the state learned that nearly one-third of all seniors still hadn’t completed the requirement. School counselors have been organizing mass, last-minute, community-service events.

Such circumstances can also be less than ideal for those who are supposed to benefit. The campaign for community service can bring complaints from nonprofit agencies inundated with too many volunteers.

“We get tons of volunteers on Thanksgiving, but no one wants to help organize it,” said Dara Laski, a longtime volunteer with the Optimist Club and Police Activity League in Reseda who works with student volunteers. “Everyone shows up for one hour, wants to do the fun front-line work, and leaves.”

The answer is to make sure that programs are tightly structured and well-managed, according to advocates. One agency that has flourished as a result is L.A. Works--a nonprofit agency that coordinates volunteer experiences for school groups.

“We try to bring a sense of professional management and customer service to volunteerism,” said Tanner Methvin, executive director.

Walking through the halls of Burroughs High between classes recently, school counselor Keith Myatt also called for professional management.

“Think of the massive job of placing all these kids,” he said as students brushed by him on every side. “Is there that much community service to be done? Will we have to create stuff? It’s going to take a lot of management.”

More management means teachers need more resources to manage programs--bad news for cash-strapped schools.

Already, according to the Pitzer College/USC study, school-sponsored service programs tend to be felt most in wealthier neighborhoods. But that’s not where the greatest needs are. “We found the neighborhoods most in need are the ones that didn’t have community service in schools. They didn’t have the resources,” said Raskoff.

Defining what constitutes community service has been debated. Palisades Charter High School in LAUSD has changed a community-service graduation requirement approved four years ago because it proved so problematic.

“In one case a kid had turned in hours washing windows in Beverly Hills in a car dealership,” said Principal Merle Price.

Now instead of requiring a certain number of community-service hours to graduate, the school requires students to complete specific projects each year--usually as part of regular classroom assignments.

“Just going someplace and volunteering . . . can be almost meaningless and it’s really easy to cheat on,” said Kathleen Rattay, principal of Granada Hills High School and co-chairwoman of a committee that is drafting recommendations for a new LAUSD community-service requirement. Rattay said the Palisades model is more likely to become the norm than a strict hours-for-diploma requirement.

And the question remains: What do students get out of it?

Lorena Rodriguez, a Burroughs sophomore who also volunteers to help developmentally disabled classmates, loves the work but has doubts about its effect on other students.

“You shouldn’t make them. They would hate it,” she said, as she sat down to eat muffins with a dozen special-education pupils.

Asked if she had already done enough work to fulfill such a requirement, Lorena looked puzzled. “I don’t care about the hours,” she said. “I want to do this just because I want to. That’s it.”