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Indentured Gratitude

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Some private New York City schools are scaling back their student community service requirements as a result of questions about how students view them, reports The New York Times.

The volunteering requirement, to complete as many as 100 hours by graduation, has become commonplace for college-bound students, particularly over the last fifteen years. But community service coordinators at some New York City private schools say that instead of instilling a sense of compassion or volunteerism, students have become obsessed with stocking hours. According to critics, such a hefty requirement can also motivate students to lie about their service and, if they have the money, to buy their hours.

Service requirements have even resulted in a cottage industry of community service vacations, like a $4,000 three-week trip to pick up trash on Costa Rican beaches with ample time for kayaking and scuba lessons. Sandra R. Bass, editor of The Private School Insider, a Manhattan newsletter, explained that schools may be strict about the requirement, “but not so strict about how you fulfill them.”

This school year, Patti Schackett, a community service coordinator at Manhattan’s Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School slashed 40 hours from the 100 hour service requirement. She hopes this will help students “choose quality projects that do the most good.”

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Another approach, rather than leaving it to students to set up their own service work, is to involve the school more directly in the service. In our middle school, all the kids are asked to volunteer at one of four local sites. We form eight groups of 2-6 students, and each group goes out every other week (from the sites' perspective, someone can be counted on to show up every week). I drive four groups, and two other teachers drive two each. From my vantage point, it works effectively. The kids each put in about 30 hours a year, enough to build connections and feel good about their work without doing so much they begin to feel burned out.

If teachers are driving middle school kids to community service sites, does this happen during the school day or after? What kinds of agencies want groups of middle school kids?

A lot of community agencies would take volunteer work from middle school students. Where I am, CASA (gardening food for seniors), HHA (winterizing homes/ building), parks, and other organizations (like Water Watch orgs) would love to have some help in various projects. I'd like to know if it's done during school hours, or not, too. Trying to get the population of students we have to do something like this is nearly impossible, but having to pay for the busing is just as bad.

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