Pro/Con: Should student service learning hours be mandatory for high school graduation?

March 10, 2011, 11:33 a.m. | By Simrin Gupta, Claire Koenig | 11 years, 8 months ago

Simrin Gupta says yes: The SSL hour requirement benefits the community and encourages responsibility.

Picking up trash might not be the average teenager's idea of a fun weekend activity. But as students complete their Student Service Learning (SSL) hour requirement cleaning up the environment, they end up picking up a lot more than trash. For years, high school students have been giving back to the community through the SSL hour requirement. As a result, causes across the community have benefitted and students have taken on a new sense of responsibility. The SSL hour requirement lets students establish social partnerships while addressing recognized needs.

The purpose of SSL hours is to address community needs in a way that reinforces curriculum goals because they arm students with the knowledge, skills and attitude necessary for productivity in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world. According to the original 1997 MCPS memo, all community service action, whether it be direct or indirect, encourages career preparation and reflection.

First and foremost, the SSL hour requirement teaches students responsibility. Regardless of the type of activity they decide to pursue, students are held responsible for completing a job to the best of their ability. This sense of accountability contributes to an overarching feeling of personal responsibility. Furthermore, according to Blair Student Service Learning Coordinator Robert Hopkins, "The greatest part of SSL hours is that students learn transferable skills that can be applied to a variety of unique situations," he says.

More importantly, the SSL hour requirement prompts experiences that can form links to what students learn at school. These learning links reinforce the concepts students have been introduced to at school. Throughout elementary, middle and high school, MCPS students learn about major issues like natural disasters and ecosystem conservation, as well as societal issues like bullying prevention, nutrition and fitness. For example, a student with a particular interest in environmental science puts their knowledge to the test when they volunteer with organizations like the Seneca Creek State Park or the C&O Canal Association. Even when activism is not directly related to coursework, students learn universal lessons like the importance of helping their fellow community members when they help feed the homeless or build homes for natural disaster victims. By fulfilling this requirement, students also gain the opportunity to volunteer in fields that interest them, allowing them to experiment with possible career paths.

But perhaps the most beneficial part of the SSL hour requirement is that it gives students experience with group dynamics. When performing community service, students learn to form a cooperative team in order to accomplish their goal. They have to effectively work with members in authority positions as well. When they dedicate time to the community, students make attitudinal and behavioral strides by learning how to be productive members of society. According to Julie Ayers, a service-learning specialist for the Maryland State Department of Education, the hours students spend doing community service equip them with the knowledge and skills needed for civic engagement.
Instead of taking a more lax approach regarding the SSL hour requirement, MCPS should continue to make the hours mandatory for graduation. Though a 15-hour increase may strike some as a burden, it's 15 more hours during which students are learning skills crucial to their future success. Without the consequence of not graduating, the majority of students may not be exposed to the numerous advantages of community service work. The community benefits from students' work, and students take away experiences that enable them to live successfully.

Claire Koenig says no: Mandated community service takes away from the meaning of the experience.

What happened to asking what we can do for our country? All for one and one for all? It's a small world? Apparently, the school system feels that there isn't enough kumbaya to go around, so it has chosen to make service a part of the graduation requirement.

The Student Service Learning (SSL) obligation imposed upon high school students today is not only unfair, but unnecessary. The initiative to serve the community shouldn't have to come from fear of failing to graduate, but from a student's passions and interests.

The obvious merit of community service is not debatable - students learn to appreciate lending a hand while non-profits put those hands to good use. But the logic of forcing people to volunteer falls short when compared to the benefits students gain from the act of offering to perform community service. Schools should do all they can to encourage students to volunteer by continuing to provide opportunities in the community and rewarding students who complete an exemplary number of hours, but community service should not be required in order to achieve a high school diploma.

The merit of volunteer work stems from the fact that it is voluntary - if schools mandate that students perform community service, then projects lose value to the student participants. Many students don't feel inspired by their time serving the community so much as irritated that they were forced to do so by the school system in the same way that some children disregard good advice because it comes from their parents.

The SSL requirement can also be insulting to those that are enthusiastic about their volunteer work. These students should be proud that they can help selflessly out of intrinsic motivation, instead of feeling forced to put their hours of hard work towards an SSL requirement. The 1992 district court case Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District highlighted this dilemma when two students dedicated to their service work appealed to the court for their diplomas after refusing to put their volunteer hours toward the community service requirement. Although the court's verdict came back against the students' plea, the message they sought to send is clear: They performed community service for good, not for graduation.

High school is a busy time - many students juggle jobs or multiple afterschool activities in addition to their schoolwork. It is unfair to those students who have obligations outside of school to keep them from graduating because of SSL hours, because some of them simply don't have the time to spare.

In some cases service hours are the barrier keeping students from graduating. Senior Riley Harris is struggling to find time for more volunteer work before graduation because previous service he has completed was not eligible for SSL hours. And junior Stephan Kostreski, who should be a senior this year, but because of his late entrance into MCPS he is missing a few core requirements that are keeping him from graduating. One of these requirements, along with credits in biology and NSL, includes ten more SSL hours.

Encouraging good work for a good cause is one thing; driving students to the good work for the sake of graduating is another.

While it is true that the required hours of service do open students to work in the community that they would not experience should the mandate be eliminated, but the SSL requirement also enforces the wrong mindset toward community service in students.

As it is, MCPS is encouraging students to do the right things for all the wrong reasons.

Simrin Gupta. More »

Claire Koenig. More »

Show comments


Julie — 6 months, 3 weeks ago

i agree that it is should be mandatory because i can teach the teens different life skills.

Please ensure that all comments are mature and responsible; they will go through moderation.