Our educational system aims to teach enough of the basic skills to prepare students to qualify for jobs or higher education. But, it should also aim to produce responsible, high quality members of society. Educational success should still include metrics on graduation rates and whether a given year's students scored high on SATs. But success should also be defined in terms of whether the graduates are well on their way toward being individuals who would make good neighbors, and, over the long-term, would build strong communities.
Often, the opening of a door is all that is needed to interest a teenager in continuing on a path through that door. We have regrettably seen that to be true far too often with regard to some very negative influences, including substance abuse and criminal behavior. Requiring a small bit of exposure to opportunities to help one's community will awaken many minds to opportunities for continued involvement, and is likely to create mutually beneficial habits. While it is aimed toward the long-term strengthening of our communities and of our youths' character, it is also likely to have a positive impact on academics, as well, as some students are likely to find new sources of career and personal motivation.
Ideas / Solutions
Toward these objectives, States should specify that a short course in volunteerism and community service should become a graduation requirement of our high schools. Some cities and states, including Chicago, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York have already instituted a requirement of 60 to 75 hours of community service as a condition for graduation. But community service could be more valuable if it were accompanied by a limited course that explores the avenues for public service, both for students and as a career, and its vital role in making communities function. It is especially relevant in light of the inclination of many students to discharge their community service requirement by doing something basic and menial, such as picking up trash, which satisfies their obligation without teaching them much about the functioning of their community.
The curriculum could be taught in a one-hour class held twice a week, with a requirement for volunteer field-work outside of school for at least five hours each week during the semester. This course could also be combined with the other mini-courses described in other chapters, in a semester-long rotation.
The course itself could inform the students of:
- the types of charitable and volunteer work that are needed in the locality,
- the types that are needed in other communities, nationally and internationally,
- where to learn, outside of the class, about local needs for assistance and options for service,
- what types of skills are in demand, and
- how to fashion a career in public service or in the non-profit sector.
After the first few weeks, class time could include the sharing of experiences and feedback from the other students so that they could positively reinforce each other, and receive the benefit of each other's experiences.
This approach has even greater potential for addressing the more daunting challenges in lower-performing schools, such as those located in poorer communities, with fewer, and often outdated, educational resources. Students in these schools are much more likely to leave those schools with less advanced skill sets and have greater difficulty being accepted into institutions of higher learning or jobs with a viable career path, in community service or otherwise. This curriculum could help level that playing field.
School districts should further expand on community service as a career option for students in schools that face these daunting societal challenges. Guidance toward careers in the non-profit and public service sectors can be a very meaningful and forceful antidote to a shortage of inspiration, hope, role models, optimism, and recognition of opportunities. Leadership can be taught….and such training must be made available. Teenagers with the intellectual capital to be productive members, or even leaders, of society should be encouraged, rather than abandoned to destructive forces such as crime, lassitude, and drugs because they can’t see the path to the high road.
In these instances, in addition to the coursework on volunteerism, there should be a program to mentor, inspire, and guide these vulnerable youth toward productive outlets in which their talents can flourish and their aspirations can be cultivated. The support can have an especially profound impact on at-risk teenagers. It could be presented as a class in leadership.
Collaboration with public colleges and universities should be crafted, so that completion of the leadership course and the commitment to volunteer for a specified number of hours could contribute to their eligibility for college or university admission. Completion of the program should be both quantitatively and qualitatively factored into that student's qualifications. As a further inducement to participate and be exposed to public service opportunities, students who complete this program could also be given additional priority for financial aid at their college or university following admission.
The program should be designed as a partnership between schools, non-profit community service organizations, and even local private sector companies, utilizing the resources of each. The key would be to expose the students to role models, techniques, and job environments that are tailored to the specific interests of participating students. It could begin with speakers and one-on-one meetings with professionals and other successful individuals from careers of interest to the students, in which they begin to identify with those professionals and their careers. Students could then be asked to do research into those careers which interested them, and case studies could be presented both by the students and to the students, showcasing relevant examples of successful individuals, companies, industries, or ideas. It would be in the interests of non-profits and companies to participate.
Each feature of the program, including those that individual schools would add for its program or for a particular student, would be calculated to guide students toward the desire to embrace opportunities and maximize their own potential. The program is premised on the notion that the best way to prevent destructive forces is to provide constructive ones. And by lighting the flames of ambition, enthusiasm, and dedication, great things can happen.