Illinois teens may need community service hours to graduate

Monday, January 19, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Carly Caminiti started doing community service because her high school requires 60 hours of volunteer work before graduation. Four years later, she has racked up nearly 1,000 hours serving food at a soup kitchen, shoveling snow for neighbors and planning a drug prevention retreat for other students.

"At first it was just about getting the hours, but now it's turned into something that's so much more," said Caminiti, an 18-year-old student at Springfield's Sacred Heart-Griffin High School. "I actually have a passion for it now and getting the service hours is fine by me, but I would be doing it anyway."

If Gov. Rod Blagojevich gets his way, all Illinois students will have to complete 40 hours of community service during high school to receive their diploma. "The more involved you are with your community, the better a citizen you become," he said in last week's State of the State address.

Community service mandates are growing in popularity across the country. Many parochial and private schools already have service requirements, and Maryland requires all of its high school students to volunteer.

Chicago public schools implemented a 40-hour community service requirement in 1998, and several school districts and private schools require it.

If carried out properly, community service can help students connect their classroom work to real life, said Jim Kielsmeier, president of the St. Paul, Minn.-based National Youth Leadership Conference, which helps schools set up service programs.

Question of message

The most effective programs offer structure to help reluctant students and train teachers to incorporate class work with volunteerism, he said.

The message to students should be, "you're doing this not because we want to fix you, but because the community needs what you have to offer," Kielsmeier said.

The governor would leave it up to school districts to decide what counts as service. He proposes allocating $6 million a year starting in July 2005, giving each high school $10,000 for two implementation coordinators. An additional $1.1 million in federal grants also could be used.

Caminiti's volunteer work helped her choose a career. After volunteering with a tobacco prevention program in Illinois, and later helping to create one of her own, Caminiti says she plans to work in the field permanently.

Still, there are always students who don't like being told they must do volunteer work. Jon Schmidt, service learning manager for Chicago Public Schools, said it's important for schools to provide structure or students will get bogged down worrying about what they have to do.

"If it's a bad first experience and they get turned off by it, then we may have lost them," Schmidt said.

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