Consider all the Mayfield Woods Middle School eighth-graders to be trailblazers.
Since September, they've been clearing a nearly one-mile path in front of their Elkridge school to build a hiking trail that will serve as a gift to their community and a tribute to nature.
And to mark Maryland Youth Service Day yesterday, about 50 of them tramped through the woods to continue the job.
Some raked leaves and trimmed small plants, while others worked to pry loose a big stone that sat in the middle of the nearly half-completed nature trail.
Along the trail, 13-year-old Catherine Repsher, 14-year-old Kay Ratcliffe and two classmates struggled with an orange-handled saw to prune a branch nearly twice their height.
None had previously worked with the saw, and they had a hard time positioning it into the branch. Finally, they cut deeply enough so they could twist off a smaller branch.
"What we just did was the hardest part of building this trail," Kay said, after she and her friends cheered the job they had done.
The 210 eighth-grade students are working collaboratively on the trail in order to fulfill the state's new student service requirement for high school graduation.
Under the new requirement, students who enter ninth grade this year and in the coming years must perform 75 hours of public service, or complete a locally designed student service program, to get their high school diplomas. Howard County school officials hope to have all students complete the requirement in middle school.
County schools have come up with a variety of student service projects. Owen Brown Middle School, for example, is sending students to help Dasher Green Elementary School students in reading. Clarksville Middle School is raising funds to help a North Carolina middle school damaged by Hurricane Emily.
At Mayfield each day, a group of 50 students takes turns working on the two-foot wide path, which borders a small pond and a babbling brook. They uproot small plants, clear tiny twigs and line up fallen tree branches along the dirt path, which soon will be covered with wood chips.
The work isn't easy and teaches 13-year-old Vicky Brice to appreciate how hard her parents work in their jobs.
"I can understand how my parents feel," she said. "They work hard. Everybody here comes in and, whew, they're tired."
The project has spurred the enthusiasm of students who were at first lackadaisical about building a nature trail, said Babette Silverman, the teacher who is coordinating the project.
"I now have students who are asking me to come out when they're not scheduled to," she said. "And a lot of students who aren't doing well academically are finding they have something they can accomplish. . . . It's a tremendous change."
Whether that change is reflected in academic performance, "I can't tell you until report cards come out," she said.
Parents and teachers, as well as area businesses, have helped with the trail.
The school's PTA pledged to contribute $250, and Clark's Hardware sold students three dozen pairs of working gloves at cost. Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. donated 80 cubic yards of wood chips, and Hechinger donated $50 worth of tools, including a rake, a lopper and a shovel.
And eighth-grader Tim Fritz's family donated 200 tulip bulbs, so students could plant them around the school and near the nature trail.
After students complete the trail, scheduled to be finished this spring, they will work on building a bird sanctuary. They also plan to build an outdoor classroom, with benches, where students can draw nature sketches, play musical instruments and write in their journals.
Students also are talking about dedicating the trail to fellow classmate Krissy Shepherd, a 14-year-old who recently died of cancer.
"This is my hope: they will get to know how it feels to help somebody, to do a community service," Mrs. Silverman said. "And, hopefully, this will be the beginning."