Grants considered to reward students for community service


The Columbia Council is considering creating a grant program that would put high school students to work cleaning up the environment, helping the elderly or doing other community service chores.

The grants would be intended to reward teen-agers who show initiative and allow them to carry out projects they otherwise might not be able to attempt, said Vice Chairwoman Fran Wishnick of Oakland Mills village.

"This would more directly connect the needs we're finding in Columbia with the community service work teens are doing," she said. "The idea is to encourage specific initiative on problems Columbia is experiencing."

The council is leaning toward combining the community service grants with the Spear Family scholarship program, said Ms. Wishnick, who sponsored the proposal with Councilwoman Norma Rose of Wilde Lake village.

Five county high school seniors who have demonstrated community service to Columbia are awarded $1,000 college scholarships each year under the 3-year-old Spear Family program. The scholarship was named for former Rouse Co. executive Michael D. Spear, who was killed in a plane crash in 1990.

The current $5,000 annual budget for community service awards would not be increased, but would be divided between the two programs, at least for a one-year trial period, said council members.

The council, the board of directors for the Columbia Association, which manages the unincorporated city's recreational facilities, community programs and open space areas, will approve the association's fiscal 1995 budget -- which would include the grant program -- by early March.

"People who pay the [association] assessment would be interested in having their funds used to address problems at the same time that teens would be given an opportunity they couldn't do otherwise," Ms. Wishnick said.

The grants program also would complement the new state education policy requiring high school students to meet community service standards before graduating, she said.

County public schools have developed a program in which middle school students satisfy the community service requirement by completing a class, club or individual project. Students transferring into the system for high school can meet the requirement by individually performing 75 hours of community service or by joining an approved project.

High school students who complete the requirement in middle school are encouraged by educators to continue their involvement in community service voluntarily into high school and adulthood, said Brenda Allen, who oversees the county's Student Service Program.

Ms. Allen said the Columbia Council's proposal seems like an excellent idea. "I think students would take advantage of it," she said.

The school system also has a program that allows teachers to apply for grants of up to $500 to work on community service projects with students, she said.

Harper's Choice Councilwoman Hope Sachwald, a speech-language pathologist at Mount Airy Elementary School, said promoting learning experiences through the grants would be an important aspect of the program.

"They can learn as much from what doesn't work as from what does," she said. "I love giving somebody a chance to explore different areas. One thing you find working with kids is that they have great ideas."

Under the council's proposal, the application process for the grants would be competitive to foster "innovative community service." A council committee would evaluate proposals based on creativity and relevance to Columbia's needs. The council hasn't decided whether it will identify those needs for applicants.

Expenses generally would be reimbursed upon submission of a voucher, unless arrangements are made to pay for something in advance.

Councilman David Berson of River Hill recommends taking the proposal one step further by providing a stipend to students after a project is completed to increase incentive.

Mr. Berson also advocates making criteria for the Spear Family scholarships more stringent to ensure that students receiving the tuition money are "doing something exceptional."

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