With less than three months left in the school year, a third of the seniors in Baltimore’s largest high school have not completed their service learning requirement. At another of the city’s large high schools, 55 percent are still lacking the service hours needed to graduate. It’s been that way in the city’s schools since the state’s service learning requirement kicked in with the Class of ’97. A new set of Baltimore guidelines, however, seeks to diminish the number of 11th-hour cases. Henceforth, students will be expected to log the required 75 hours before they enter junior year, when they often become more involved in extracurricular activities or jobs.

The district’s timing guidelines call specifically for 18 hours each in 6th, 7th and 8th grades, 11 hours in 9th grade and 10 hours in 10th grade.

Students were not arriving in high school with enough hours under their belts, says Susan Buckson-Greene, the service learning coordinator at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, the city’s largest. “That’s why it seems such a great task to us.”

Buckson-Greene keeps tabs on service learning hours for 2,400 students; she also teaches three classes, two in creative writing and a 9th-grade English class.

Teachers who have incorporated service learning into their classrooms must submit forms to her describing their projects and how they meet the criteria. Once a project is completed, the teacher reports the number of hours each student earned, and an office assistant enters them into students’ computerized records. Students who want to do independent projects must submit forms and get Buckson-Greene’s approval at the outset; they keep a log sheet of their hours that must be signed by a supervisor from the community organization where they volunteer.

New tactic

Once every month or two, Buckson-Greene generates a report showing how many hours each student has yet to earn. It is distributed to the entire faculty, who are expected to nudge students along.

Baltimore teacher Robert Black, recognized by the Maryland Student Service Alliance for the high caliber of his service learning projects, contends that in the rush to complete the requirement, students get credit for doing “mundane” tasks such as picking up trash in the halls.

To promote improvement in the quality of service activities, Baltimore has designated focus areas for each grade level. In 6th grade, service learning should be tied to social studies and health; in 7th grade, health and science, and so on.

“The pitfall is that there is no real accountability for that,”says Buckson-Greene.

The service learning coordinator at Patterson High School, another large Baltimore school, estimates that less than 25 percent of the school’s English, history, math and science teachers have incorporated service learning projects into their courses. This is reflected in the large percentage of students doing independent projects; for Patterson seniors, it’s 90 percent.

“We have not gotten to the point where we can rely on our teachers,” says Patterson coordinator Therese Osietutu, who also serves as head guidance counselor. At the beginning of second semester this year, some of the school’s 370 seniors had earned no service learning hours, she says.

Ultimately, the principal and vice principal will have to do a better job of monitoring teacher compliance with the system’s new guidelines, Osietutu says. Meanwhile, she is looking forward to the school hiring a full-time service coordinator.

A recent project at Lake Clifton-Eastern High illustrates the challenges of achieving a quality service learning experience. Several classes teamed up to produce an evening of dinner theater about domestic violence. A creative writing class wrote plays about the subject; a technology and industry class built the set and printed the tickets; cooking classes prepared the meals; and the accounting class kept track of the money.

“The actual event was wonderful,” says coordinator Buckson-Greene. But she wonders whether teachers discussed the issue of domestic violence in their classrooms prior to the performance. Buckson-Greene will evaluate the event to determine how it can be improved and how many hours each student should be awarded, based on how they participated.

“I haven’t ascertained how valuable that was as a service project,” she says. If the activity did not meet the requirements for quality service, no credit will be given, she adds.

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