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Community Service:
Opportunity or Exploitation?


What about mandatory community service programs in schools? Are they a wonderful opportunity or are they "slave labor" for students?

Be sure to see additional articles in
Education World's Service Learning Archive.

Community service: What a wonderful opportunity for students! A chance for our younger citizens to learn responsibility, experience the satisfaction that comes with helping others and to acquire new skills.


Well, that depends who you're talking to. Slip the word "mandatory" behind community service, as school districts in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and hundreds of others have done, and "opportunity" takes a new twist. Opportunity for who? For the students, or for the communities that can now capitalize on students' free labor?

Proponents -- including President Clinton and former President Bush -- say participating in community service builds character, teaches civic responsibility, opens doors to career possibilities, looks good on college applications and resumes, and often provides services for communities they otherwise might not have. It also can help students focus on their goals: One study shows that girls who are involved in community service are less likely to get pregnant and less likely to fail in school.

Opponents say it can interfere with learning the basics and holding part-time jobs, puts an unfair burden on students, that it's the responsibility of parents to guide their children's moral and ethical development, and that, at worst, mandatory service is no better than slave-labor. Forcing students into "volunteering" could have a backlash effect, some critics contend, creating a generation of students for whom community service has left a bad taste, like an adult with an aversion to broccoli because as a child he was forced to clean it off his plate.

There is not enough research to unequivocally support either side. Yet anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that for many students, mandatory community service is a plus, opening new vistas that might otherwise go unexplored.

"It's given me an opportunity that wouldn't have been there," said Maryland student Erin Neubauer in an Education Week article on the topic. Neubauer served food at a soup kitchen as part of a freshman government class. ""I didn't even know a soup kitchen existed in Harford County."

Zeinab Hachem, a sophomore at Frodson High School in Dearborn, Mich., where the school district is preparing to make community service mandatory, is already a volunteer. She spends nearly 40 hours a week during the summer at Oakwood Hospital, working with CT-scan technicians and translating Arabic for doctors, among other things. She said the experience has reinforced her desire to become a neurosurgeon. "Most people my age don't help unless they get paid," Hachem told the Detroit News. "I think volunteering is a great thing, and I'm really glad I do it."

Approaches to and requirements of mandated community service vary widely: In Washington, D.C., 100 hours of community service are required for high school graduation; Illinois Consolidated High School District 230 requires just 24 hours. In Maryland, the first and only state to mandate community service statewide, districts could either require 75 hours of service, starting as early as sixth grade, or seek state approval for a plan that infused service learning -- an integration of community service with classroom preparation and reflection -- throughout the academic programs. All of Maryland's 24 districts chose the latter.

Although much still needs to be learned about the effects of mandated community service, a few points seem clear:

  • Students are more likely to complete their service if schools help arrange service opportunities. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that of 8,043 students surveyed in 1996, 56 percent participated in community service at schools that both required it and arranged service, but only 19 percent participated at schools where it was required but not arranged.
  • Like it or not, mandated community service for students is legal. The practice has so far withstood court challenges in New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
  • The best approaches, and those that are least likely to be challenged, seem to be service learning opportunities that are well integrated within the curriculum.

This type of integrated service learning is what California teacher Alan Haskvitz calls the Make a Difference model, which he describes in "A Community Service Program that Can Be Validated" (Phi Delta Kappan, October 1996). "In its simplest terms, the premise of Make a Difference is that students not only complete community service but also study the organization that they work for or the problem that they seek to solve," he writes.

For example, he says, almost every state requires elementary students to learn local history, yet materials for such a unit are scarce. His solution? His students at Suzanne Middle School rewrote the history of their community by conducting interviews, locating background materials and creating a computer database and a video for use by elementary students and their teachers. The project filled a need that had been neglected, and the students gained the experience of developing skills in research, critical thinking, problem-solving, writing and technology.

Such projects seem inarguably good opportunities for learning. In "The Community Is Their Textbook" (The American Prospect, Summer 1995), a study that explores the effectiveness of Maryland's mandatory service for students, author Suzanne Goldsmith tells us of a middle school project, at Western Heights Middle School in Hagerstown, where seventh-graders working on an environmental unit studied maps of local watershed areas.

The students learned to take water samples for pollutants in a nearby creek, and soon expanded their project, testing all the streams in the area and following the water's path from their landlocked town to Chesapeake Bay. They learned about seepage and dumping, the role of wetlands in purifying the water table, and efforts to clean up Chesapeake Bay. They petitioned the city to paint signs discouraging dumping, began making presentations to other students and civic groups, and converted a holding pond at the school into a wetlands area. In the process, they not only developed citizenship skills, but increased their knowledge in geography, biology and government. Through such programs, students in Hagerstown complete their community service requirements before they even begin ninth grade.

When Goldsmith tells these students about the lawsuits against mandatory community service, which argued that compulsory service amounted to involuntary servitude, they're surprised.

"Schoolwork is slavery," says one student. "This is fun."

Article by Colleen Newquist
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Article originally published 11/10/1997
Links last updated 04/06/2009