MANDATORY VOLUNTEERING: AN OXYMORON OR A VALUABLE LESSON?

Volunteerism in high school is a long-standing tradition, but a contentious aspect of it is being debated around the country these days: mandatory community service. Some high schools are requiring students to perform volunteer work as a graduation requirement.

Questions of choice and freedom swirl around the mandate. Does a public school have a right to impose such a requirement? Suits have been filed over the issue in some states, and steps toward the requirement have been stymied for other reasons in various places. A 1991 plan for the reorganization of Boston schools, for instance, included a controversial community-service mandate. Four years later it was dropped, and service was made voluntary.

"In Kentucky we've been experimenting with different ways of doing it with community support," says John Fischetti, associate professor of secondary education at the University of Louisville, who worked on a statewide task force examining the question of requiring volunteer work for graduation. "I believe it's growing - school by school and state by state," he says, and it often causes controversy.

One reason for this growth is the wide variety of volunteer needs in communities.

But what kind of community service high schools will give credit for varies. "One person's service is another person's slavery," Professor Fischetti observes. But if students have options, volunteer projects can accommodate "virtually anyone," he says.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals issued a report earlier this year recommending that students receive academic credit for helping with community needs. But it stated that students should then have to digest what they have experienced and reflect on it in class.

"It's not just going out and doing the service and automatically getting credit for it," Fischetti says. "It's thinking about it and what it means to be a citizen."

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