Service can serve college aspirations

by Tori Hamby

Hunter Mullis, a Lincoln Charter School rising junior, didn’t just learn about the terrible events of 9/11 through a teacher or a textbook.

On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Hunter and her classmates – through Lincoln Charter’s Learn.Serve.Engage service-learning program – organized a 1.5-mile memorial walk at Sally’s YMCA in Denver.

Students lit luminaries that lined the walk’s path, each symbolizing a person who died, and invited the Denver community to participate. The act helped students put those events into perspective.

“I really didn’t realize how many people died that day,” Hunter said. She was only about 5 years old in 2001.

Many charter and private schools have established service-learning programs during the past decade.

The goal? To help students realize the benefits of life-long volunteerism. Most programs require students to serve a set number of community service hours to remain in good standing with the school.

The school might provide opportunities to participate in classroom group projects or students may choose to work outside of school, either on their own or with other groups such as nonprofit organizations.

Service-learning experiences from middle school and high school may sometimes motivate students to pursue a career that involves helping others, such as a family counselor or social worker. Or it might simply provide students with an altruistic outlet in college, Kortni Campbell, an admissions counselor at Davidson College, said.

“It becomes very clear for students what their key motivators are,” she said. “The things they are particularly passionate about become clear on applications. Sometimes, a school-required service project might unlock something that becomes a passion throughout college.”

Those school administrators might be on to something, data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement shows. The center reported in 2007 that students who completed school-required service hours during high school were more likely to graduate from college by 22 percentage points, than those who did not. College students who performed voluntary community service in high school were more likely to graduate by 19 percentage points.

But most North Carolina public schools probably won’t follow the service-learning trend anytime soon. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction does not make schools provide service-learning programs or require students to accrue community service hours.

Unless a student gets involved with a community service project on her or his own, with school clubs, nonprofit organizations or through the International Baccalaureate programs, students can graduate without performing a single hour of community service. Some schools give students freedom to carry out their own service projects at school, but most preparation is done outside of the school day.

Rebecca Garland, state chief academic officer, said the state considered requiring students to complete community service in the late 1990s and again in 2010. That’s when the state board of education voted to make seniors complete a project with a community service component for graduation. Ultimately, the N.C. General Assembly voted to let individual school districts decide to require volunteerism projects.

“If you require public service at the state level, then who chooses what public service is?” Garland said. “Who goes out and monitors what students are doing? Certainly citizenship is one of the values we want to teach students, but the board felt is show be based on how local communities feel about it.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Mooresville Graded Schools require students to complete senior projects, but most work is completed outside of class. A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student might spend time working with autistic children, for instance, to research information for a project’s required research paper and presentation. Community service is not a required component, but students might include service hours spent working on their projects on college applications.

Ashley Memory, senior assistant director of admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill, said while it’s difficult to determine if community service gives students an edge in the admissions process – whether through service-learning programs or individual projects – volunteerism has become an important part of a college application.

About 95 percent of the 4,000 students the school admits each year have some sort of community service listed on their applications, she said.

“Each applicant is an individual who brings a variety of things, so it’s hard to say if one thing, such as community service, can give him or her an advantage,” Memory said. “But there are situations where community service could be a deciding factor.”

Because the state gives charter schools such as Mountain Island Charter School in Mount Holly and Lincoln Charter School more freedom to operate at the school level, administrators continue to tout their service learning programs.

“Part of our charter, when we were first founded in ’98, was that our parents would volunteer at the school,” Jonathan Bryant, Lincoln Charter Head of School, said. “We had expectations that they would give back to the school community. So, when developing the Learn.Serve.Engage program, we said ‘Let’s have these high expectations with our students as well.’”

It might be easy to assume that students will stop volunteering once they receive their coveted college admissions letter in the mail, but students such as Hunter, the Lincoln Charter School rising junior who aspires to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, say that’s not the plan. Hunter has already looked into future volunteer opportunities to pursue during college.

“There are several service-related activities at Carolina that I would love to become involved in.”

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