No service learning, no prom and no graduation

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Vernon Young, a senior at Lincoln Park High School, had brushed off his service learning requirement until his principal made this announcement: “No service learning, no prom.” That got his attention.

“I realized then that I had to do something quick,” he says. So he joined ASPIRA, a Latino education and leadership development organization, and racked up 22 hours working on cultural awareness projects in his community. “I’m halfway there now.”

Young and other members of the Class of 2001 are the first to face the CPS graduation requirement of 40 hours of service learning. The Board of Education adopted the requirement three years ago, but as of March 26, a third of CPS seniors had not completed it, according to the Office of High School Development.

The reported completion rates ranged from 99 percent at Lane Tech High School to 19 percent at Flower Academy. However, CPS Service Learning Director Grace Troccolo cautions that school reporting may lag behind student accomplishment.

“Convincing [students] that this really is a requirement has been our biggest challenge,” says Betty Johnson, service learning coach at Robeson High School. “This is the first year, and some people have a tendency to not realize the real urgency until the last minute.”

Johnson says that Robeson students are constantly reminded of completing service hours by “just about every adult they come in contact with” in school. The school also sent certified letters to the parents of seniors who have yet not yet completed the requirement. The March 26 report puts Robeson’s completion rate at 50 percent.

Stick and carrot

Don McCord, counselor and service learning coach at Kenwood Academy, says that, like Lincoln Park, his school had to resort to a stick. First it took the carrot approach, arranging a meeting for non-compliant students to learn about new volunteer opportunities, such as a partnership with New Trier High School and Habitat for Humanity to build homes. But the turnout was low. “We’re now restricting senior activities with the hope that it will light the fire that gets them going,” he says.

At Lincoln Park, the stick brought quick results. Within a month of the “no prom” announcement, the total of reported completions rose from 19 percent to 60 percent.

Lincoln Park makes it possible for students to do the work without leaving the campus; tending the garden in the school atrium, picking up litter on school grounds and painting approved murals on school property all carry work credits. But Principal Janis Todd acknowledges that the extra time required is a challenge for some students. Some must work part time or care for younger siblings, she notes, and others are parents themselves.

Yet she sees volunteer experience as an important part of all students’ education. Ultimately, she says, schools must help students understand the importance of community service and its connection to basic human development.

“This is a wonderful benefit,” Todd says. “We want students who are well- rounded. They need to know that they are expected to give back to their community.”

Besides, she adds, 40 hours isn’t much to ask for. “We’re talking about only 10 hours per year.”

Todd predicts that in coming years, schools will have less difficulty getting students to complete their service learning hours. “After a while this should come just as naturally as doing homework.”

Troccolo reports that the high school office has registered more than 170 partnering organizations to provide more than 2,000 service project leads for students and teachers. “We have lots of projects,” she says.

As for seniors who don’t complete their 40 hours by the semester’s end, “that’s a board policy, and like any other board policy regarding requirements, they just won’t graduate,” she says. “That’s it.”

Counting students in all grades, more than 1.2 million hours of work have been completed since service learning was first implemented in the schools. “It’s almost like a silent little army,” says Troccolo.