The beginning of the 21st Century brought with it a surge of change in education. While standardized testing and teacher training became hot topics, so too did the implementation of mandatory community service programs (MCSPs).  Many districts began requiring students to complete a certain number of hours volunteering in order to graduate; some programs succeeded and some failed.  As a result, the debate ensued: should community service be required in schools?


Opponents argue that MCSPs are unrealistic, and they interfere with academics. Such was the case in Corpus Christi, Tx., where the district bowed to teachers’ arguments that their students’ course loads and extracurricular activities were already more than sufficient. Plus, the teachers said, current classes and activities required students to exercise the same skills as community service. Yet another requirement would be redundant and unnecessarily difficult.

Similarly, opponents argue that some students are pressured to contribute to their families’ finances, so requiring them to succeed academically and perform community service would be too much of a burden.


MCSPs are also seen as a detriment to the spirit of community service itself.  In a New York Times article, “The Logic of ‘Mandatory Volunteerism,’” Great Neck district superintendent William A. Shine emphasizes the importance of pure volunteerism, saying, “When you mandate it, you lose the joy of volunteering.”  In the same article, Port Washington superintendent Geoffrey N. Gordon adds that voluntary community service offers the important element of self-direction. By choosing to volunteer, students learn how to make good decisions, a lesson that he believes would be absent if they were required to volunteer.


Proponents of MCSPs disagree, saying that students gain valuable experience that they would not have gotten otherwise. Feedback indicates that students value the chance to apply skills from class to helping their community; such feedback also happens to highlight constructive use of taxpayer dollars. Plus, these real-world experiences have helped students gain valuable insights into potential paths for their future careers.


Supporters also argue that MCSPs are an important part of education, as they develop students’ social consciences and teach them to be civic-minded.  Some studies show that students who have participated in their schools’ programs feel motivated to vote and empowered to continue giving back to the community.


The debate over mandating community service programs has unfortunately not yielded a clear-cut answer. However, it has revealed components common in successful MCSPs. Based on success stories from Maryland, Chicago, the District of Columbia, and more, MCSPs should:

  • have wide community support
  • train teachers adequately
  • offer a “service learning” component.

Leaders of effective MCSPs seem to agree that districts should allow ample time to plan and prepare before implementing their programs. A task force of administrators and teachers should visit other districts with successful programs, during which they can ask questions and observe the program in action. Also, the task force should network with organizations in the greater community to pin-point what needs should be served, how students can help, and how the organizations can work with schools to maximize the quality of the program.


Community service experts agree that including a service learning component enhances both the program’s impact as well as the students’ education. In the New York Times article, “The Benefits of Volunteering, if the Service Is Real,” University of Rochester professor Richard G. Niemi says that giving students the opportunity to reflect on their service as well as the cause they serve is important. The service learning component allows students to gain a richer understanding of the problem and its cause, as well as the social policies that address it.


While some district leaders might conclude that mandating community service programs is not in the best interest of their students, those who have implemented it successfully reflect that the program is now part of the academic culture.  Students expect it, and they grow up with the understanding that they will help advance the common good in school.


This idea of service as part of the academic mission is an important one, Commack superintendent James H. Hunderfund says, as it helps “kids acquire not only skills but attitudes and values to become a contributing member of the community and the greater society.”


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