The Prowler

Schools Should Reconsider Community Service Requirements

Natalie Gordon, News Editor

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In the United States, civic engagement is promoted as an essential aspect of society. Be it through volunteering with a local organization or lending a hand to a friend in need, community service is viewed as one of the most valuable opportunities to give back to one’s community, thereby making it a better place.

Many institutions struggle to determine the best way to encourage people to serve.

In Obama’s speech to Northwestern graduates in 2006, entitled “Cultivate Empathy,” Obama said, “There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care.”

From our perspective, there are two ways of interpreting this statement. One is that, because civic engagement is not a requirement in the real world, it is the schools’ responsibility to teach students of its importance from a young age.

The other is that because it is not mandatory, it is unfair to impose this obligation upon students. There is a difference between promoting the value of volunteer work and mandating a certain number of hours.

In recent years, a growing number of high schools in the country have required the completion of community service hours in order to graduate. While the number of required hours per year differs in every school, it is very common for schools to mandate this graduation requirement.

To many, community service is an essential part of life. Not only does it give students the opportunity to better their society, it teaches them valuable lessons about the importance of social action, responsibility, and acting with selflessness.

Community service can help students find purpose in their lives, discover their passions, and build meaningful relationships.

As people who are around teenagers know, when told to do something by an authority figure, teens are usually tempted to the opposite. Therefore, the completion of mandatory community service hours does not necessarily motivate students to participate in communal organizations. Instead, volunteering becomes a dreaded task.   

Students face the decision to 1) begin documenting hours early with the goal of reaching the maximum number of hours, or 2) procrastinate fulfilling this requirement until the last several weeks of the year, creating a problem many students know all too well.

“The fact that students are obligated to document hours means that they are not volunteering for the right reasons,” said senior Minnie Leaman. “Instead of forcing students to do this, schools should instill in us the drive to participate. Instituting this requirement means that we engage in community service throughout the time that we are in school, and stop as soon as we graduate.”

“This obligation turns what can and should be a meaningful experience into a race to acquire hours, diminishing the importance of the work we are doing,” continued Minnie. “In my opinion, the meaning behind volunteering stems from working with one organization over a long period of time, as I have tried to do over the past year.”

Working with one organization helps students find meaning in service. How else can schools help students find this meaning?

One way is by more actively introducing students to service, possibly by arranging service opportunities that engage the whole school.

For example, every year, 2 or 3 school days could be all-school service days. The school could orchestrate a few different types of service trips, so students could choose the kind of service they want to provide. But all students would participate, in the hopes that they would be inspired by the experience. Then, students who chose to could involve themselves more in specific organizations, which would be great for them in the long run. Students who didn’t volunteer outside these service days would at least be introduced to service as a lifestyle choice.

Of course, this is still a way of “requiring” service, but it would mean less work for the student to figure out what to do, and less of a time commitment outside of school, while still promoting the same benefits to students and society.

If each school develops a culture that encourages civic engagement, a dedication to service may come naturally. While there is no one solution for this issue, it is clear that the philosophy is not working as it was intended. When service hours are mandated, students resist, and the value of the work is diminished (because the purpose of service is to volunteer without any form of payment).

In de Toledo’s community service program, students are required to report service hours, but they are also given specific opportunities to complete them – for example, by participating in service trips organized by the school, volunteering for on-campus events, and/or participating in certain Shabbaton programs. This approach is clearly superior to simply mandating a certain number of hours.

Schools should revise their approaches to community service in order to better inspire students to engage in Tikkun Olam.

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Schools Should Reconsider Community Service Requirements