Reading, Writing, & Volunteering

Will you help? This is the question being put to Americans this week, dubbed "National Service Week" by President Clinton. The goal is to spark a "renewed national sense of obligation." More than a million people are expected to volunteer their time at a shelter, a food bank, a playground.

How many young people will be among them? According to one recent study, volunteering by teenagers has risen 7 percent since 1992. Another survey in 1991 found that teens are nearly four times more likely to volunteer when they are asked.

One effective way to "ask" young people to become involved in community service is to incorporate it into the school curriculum. As Mr. Clinton said, schools can do this in a number of ways, from giving students extra credit to making service a graduation requirement. However it's done, the point should be to encourage volunteer service and make it easily accessible. Many kids would like to get involved but simply don't know how.

(This week more than 40 leading educational and social service groups, calling themselves the Partnering Initiative on Education and Civil Society, announced a plan to designate 10,000 schools as models for involving students in social service activities.)

There's a laundry list of arguments against this push for voluntary service. First, some say the term is an oxymoron. If service is mandated it isn't really voluntary; it's a chore, critics say. Second, it distracts from the basic curriculum. Third, schools are trying to legislate morality.

But, as supporters point out, schools require many things thought to be important - drug education, for example, in addition to math, English, and science. By mandating service, schools send a message that "we value this and think you should too." A colleague of ours says he remembers little about the classes he took his senior year in high school. What he remembers is working with abused children - service required for graduation.

Volunteering can lead to employment opportunities. It can inspire a student to pursue a career or goal. Most important, it can foster a better sense of worth in a teen and a sense of responsibility for the community. But the work has to be something that interests the individual, something that's rewarding. The challenge for schools is deciding what activities constitute community service.

Students should have choices. If they don't, then volunteering will be a chore. If they find something they like and realize they can make a difference, then later in life they won't have to be asked, "Will you help?"

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