Mandatory community-service programs are turning school-children into lobbyists
THE FOURTH-, FIFTH-, AND SIXTH-grade students in Barbara Lewis's classroom do not ot spend all of their time in school struggling with dividing fractions and memorizing spelling words; some of their school time is taken up fighting city hall. These children, from some of the poorest families in Salt Lake City, are "responsible" for the cleanup of a hazardous waste site, the planting of hundreds of trees, and the passage of seven new laws. In her book, The Kids' Guide to Social Action, Lewis tells children that "solving social problems will bring excitement and suspense into your life. Instead of reading textbooks and memorizing what others have done, you'll create your own history with the actions you take."
Across the country, schools are adding a new subject to the curriculum--political activism. While Lewis's students receive grades in her class for their political activities, scores of school districts have set up programs that require all students to perform community service before they graduate. Parents and school-board members may believe these programs are meant to develop in otherwise apathetic students an ethic of voluntarism and the habit of serving their communities. But many of those who have designed and administered student service see their mission much differently; they want to train a corps of young political activists.
Community-service programs, which are common in many private schools, have been adopted by some 500 public school districts in the United States. Atlanta, Detroit, and the District of Columbia are among the major school districts that require community service. In many areas, officials barely keep track of the students' activities. Maryland, however, requires student service as a condition of graduation--the only state to do so. With nearly 200,000 students enrolled in public high schools, Maryland's service program is easily the largest in the nation.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former president of the Maryland Student Service Alliance (MSSA), which administers the program for Maryland, considers community-service programs laboratories for teaching democratic values. Townsend, who now works for the Clinton administration, told the Associated Press, "You have to do a lab for science; think of this as a lab for citizenship."
Students who participate in service programs are not simply talking to lonely and forgotten...