Jim O'Toole started a student service program at Harford County's Fallston High School in 1982 and has worked with more than 2,000 students in the decade since, directing activities that range from visiting nursing homes to painting bleachers to lobbying the Maryland legislature.
Though all his students were volunteers, Mr. O'Toole is an unabashed supporter of the state plan to make such service mandatory. According to a new State Board of Education policy, starting next year, students will have to spend 75 hours in community service between 7th and 12th grades.
A native of Baltimore who has been a teacher for 17 years, Mr. O'Toole teaches English, journalism, speech and mythology at Fallston High.
Q: Why do you back the proposal to make community service mandatory?
A: We started in 1982 with a few students who wanted to spruce up the school, paint some bleachers, plant some plants. It's grown to almost 300 students, about one-third of Fallston's students are involved. Some are in there every hour of every day. Others just an hour a year, which is fine -- we thank them for it.
What I've learned over the years is that these students are looking for meaning in their lives, looking for a purpose. They are bombarded with a confusing flood of stimuli, and they need something to make sense out of that. Serving their community provides a way to do that.
We've been negligent because we have taught our youth to look outward for meaning, not inward. Maybe that has contributed to a 50 percent divorce rate, to violence, to drug use. Maybe we should teach them that there is another way to find meaning. Serving their community is one way they can find that.
Through service, kids learn that they can make a difference. To use the word that is currently popular, it empowers them. There are a lot of bad choices out there -- drugs, violence, teen pregnancy. Service gives them a healthy choice. All kids should have that choice.
Q: But the kids who come to you are coming voluntarily. Won't it be different when they are forced to perform community service?
A: People often don't realize that this proposal has nothing to do with voluntarism, it has to do with community service. And I don't apologize for saying that every one of us owes this country something. All too often our kids feel no responsibility to their community, their country. They just want to know what are you going to do for me?
Freedom doesn't maintain itself. Citizens maintain it, and they do that by becoming productive members of society. So this is a start, if we can get students between the seventh and 12th grades to give 75 hours back to their community, then that's a small price to pay. I think our very survival depends on instilling in our youth a sense of responsibility to our country.
Q: But by making it a requirement, isn't there a danger that something as noble as community service will just become one more bureaucratic hoop that schools and their students have to jump through?
A: Certainly that's a risk. And I'm sure because of that, we'll lose some kids. But look at it this way: Our program at Fallston reaches one-third of the students, which is far above the national norm, which is maybe 10 percent.
Next year in Maryland, we are going to be reaching 100 percent of the kids. Maybe the programs will not be completely satisfactory, but let's say we only really get to 50 percent of the students. That's still 40 percent above the national norm. Isn't that worth some risk, some investment?
To use an analogy, I asked the kids in my English class how many of them thought they should be required to take four years of English, three of math and three of science in high school? Not one hand went up.
But do those requirements help prepare a student to enter society? Yes, they do. Will community service help kids in that way? Yes, it will. There are probably some kids who are harmed by being force to take all that English, math and science. And some might be harmed by required service. But that will be a very small percentage. The majority will find some worth in it.
Q: But won't making it a requirement take away some of meaning that your students find in community service?
A: I'll tell you one story. I had a student who was very active in the service club who was reluctant to accompany a group visiting a nursing home. It turned out his grandfather was in that home dying, and he had never had the courage to visit him. We rallied around that student and he went with us and while we were visiting around the home, he spent an hour with his grandfather, a quality hour before the man died.
That student is now a senior in college. If he's thanked me once, he's thanked me 100 times for that experience. Obviously, not everyone is going to have an experience like that. The point is that he wouldn't have gone there if he had not felt some obligation toward service. When everyone has that obligation, some of them are going to have experiences that they would not have had otherwise, that they will realize later they are very grateful for.
Q: But what about the argument that this just burdens an already overburdened school system with one more requirement?
A: Being in the classroom, I understand that any time the state mandates anything, it makes our job more difficult. But we have to make some changes in our school system, nationwide, and maybe one of those has to be with expecting more of our students, not less. Students are capable of tremendous things if given the opportunity, a lot more than we give them credit for. And they yearn for us to to expect more of them.
And that can happen through a service component. School goes beyond learning verbs and subtraction and geography. It goes to our role as productive citizens and caring human beings. You've got to learn that role somewhere. It doesn't come through osmosis. I know our schools are struggling in terms of money, but service is a learning opportunity that is worth the cost.