Even with running start, state struggles with mandate

Print More

If service learning has a hot bed, Maryland is it. In 1983, the state superintendent sought to make it a graduation requirement, but had to settle for half a loaf: The state school board instead required school districts to offer community service opportunities for credit.

Five years later, the state partnered with private foundations and formed the Maryland Student Service Alliance to help schools conduct service learning, and the up-and-coming Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, now lieutenant governor, was appointed executive director.

In 1992, the state board finally made service learning a graduation requirement, beginning with the next year’s freshman class. The next year, 1993, advocates successfully defeated an effort by some state legislators to overturn the mandate. But they have yet to win the hearts and minds of all the state’s educators.

“We’ve gone from school districts grumbling about [the requirement] to having a very clear-cut program in place in every school district,” reports Amanda Freeman, one of the alliance’s four regional coordinators. Every plan may not be exemplary, she says, but it’s “reasonable … and they are carrying it out.”

Maryland, which enrolls about 841,000 students, requires students to complete 75 hours of service learning from 6th grade to high school but gives districts flexibility in how they structure their programs. On behalf of the state, the Maryland Student Service Alliance determines whether a district’s plan is acceptable.

“Some count hours, some do not,” says Freeman. Some require students to do independent projects. Others incorporate service projects into regular courses. “We visit classes and see what it looks like,” she says. In any case, students must spend “roughly” 75 hours working on service learning projects.

Only a minuscule number of students have failed to graduate solely because they failed to clock the required hours. In June 1997, the total was 49, one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s 42,532 graduates. Last school year, the number sank to only eight.

However, supporters of service learning say some projects count in name only. Service is being done well only in “isolated pockets,” says Robert Black, a Baltimore teacher who was an early advocate of the concept. “It varies from teacher to teacher.” The challenge now is to figure out how to replicate the successful programs cost efficiently.

The alliance began working on this challenge in 1993 when it identified 14 teachers who ran exemplary service learning programs and were willing to share their expertise and enthusiasm with their peers. Black was among them. Two years later, after interviewing teachers across the state, the alliance produced a Best Practices Guide on how to improve service learning. It then identified seven model programs that can be replicated by other teachers.

All the models meet seven criteria, including equipping students with knowledge and skills before the activity, requiring students to interact with community partners and giving students responsibility for developing and implementing the service.

For school districts, the key is first to develop an infrastructure that accounts for every aspect of the program, Freeman stresses. Districts must determine “who is going to be responsible for this from central office down to the school level,” she notes. “If you are logging hours, who is logging [them], a teacher, a guidance counselor? Say you’re working with a local food pantry, do they call central office, or someone else? Does that person have a phone?” Confusion over these kinds of details can undermine an otherwise good program, Freeman says.

Maryland school districts can turn to the Student Service Alliance for training and support. In addition to sharing ideas that have worked elsewhere, the alliance looks for money to support projects.

“A big part of our role is to help raise money and get it out to the school [districts],” says Freeman. Indeed, the organization, which has seven employees, must raise much of its own budget. The state covers the cost of two of its seven employees and provides free office space, telephones, postage and stationery. Federal and private grants pay for the rest.

A prime source of funds for projects is the Corporation for National Service, a federal agency that distributes money to states through the Learn and Serve America program. The alliance forwards Maryland’s money to school districts that have submitted acceptable proposals. The largest grant of this kind was $8,785 paid to a school district in October for the current school year, Freeman says.

“A really savvy school district could get $20,000 to $22,000 from us over the course of a year,” she says, adding that some districts don’t apply. “They say they don’t have time to apply. Time is a resource they don’t have a lot of.”

Wendy Blackwell, who was designated a “point of light” in former President George Bush’s campaign to promote volunteerism, says there are hundreds of sources of money available for people who are willing to be creative. Through the Internet, she has found grants available from Kellogg, Hitachi and Kraft Foods. Service learning “doesn’t have to cost a lot to be good,” Blackwell stresses.

Some money needed

Projects may not need a lot of money, other teachers say, but they do need some. Roberta Clarke, a service learning fellow in Allegany County, offers her school as a case in point.

Students in Clarke’s home economics classes have sewn pillow cases for a homeless shelter and lap quilts and bibs for nursing home residents. However, the school doesn’t have money to pay for a bus for the kids to deliver their handiwork. As a result, she has had to deliver their work, depriving them of seeing firsthand the recipients’ appreciation.

Ironically, one nursing home is only a 10-minute walk from the school. Under school board policy, though, students must take a bus. So when a recent class decided to spend an afternoon reading to the residents, it had to raise $60 on its own to charter a bus, which they did by joining the ranks of other students selling candy bars, recycling cans and soliciting donations from the Lions and Kiwanis clubs.

Even Black has become somewhat disillusioned about service learning. In Baltimore, he says, it’s “another unfunded and unsupported mandate.”

In 1987, Black, along with other educators and school reformers, developed a successful pilot program. Once the Service Learning Alliance was up and running, it recruited him to promote the service learning’s merits. In the early 1990s, he says, he was a Pied Piper who believed his enthusiasm would be contagious.

What he failed to appreciate, he says, was “a rising tide of resentment” among his fellow teachers. Black discovered that even teachers who believed in community service opposed mandating it. Under increasing pressure to raise test scores and attendance, he says, teachers are reluctant to spend time on anything they see as supplemental.

Freeman recognizes the obstacle but insists that service learning can be integral to teaching core courses. “It’s not an add-on,” she says. “It’s a method of teaching.”

Although Black now believes that good service learning cannot be mandated—”It comes from the grass-roots, it doesn’t come from the superintendent”—he has not lost his enthusiasm for the concept. “Service learning is based on the belief that students learn by doing. It’s hands on. It’s the best form of teaching.”