In many private schools, especially church-sponsored private schools, community involvement is part of the required curriculum. The rationale is that when young people provide a helping hand to others in the community, it helps to foster their moral and ethical values. It allows them to see the lives of the less fortunate, e.g., low income senior citizens, people with disabilities, children from broken families. Furthermore, if the students come from a background of middle class or above, community involvement can help them gain a better understanding of another part of society that they normally might not see. Community involvement could reinforce the importance of working hard and getting a good education in order to move ahead in life.
This last point is something that immigrants to this country from less developed countries can resonate with. Children of first generation immigrants still can remember how tough life was in their old countries, and how hard work by their parents and themselves can significantly improve their livelihood. On the other hand, children of second generation immigrants might already be brought up in a middle-class environment with the corresponding comforts, and relatively speaking may have less incentive to study and work hard.
Even if we agree that community involvement is a good thing for public school students to engage in, there is still the question whether it should be made part of the required curriculum, or it should be an optional course or optional extra-curricular activity. In the rest of this article, I provide my own perspective on the pros and cons of mandatory community involvement.
Making it mandatory has several potential advantages:
- Every student will have this experience, and it is something they can talk about with every other student.
- With a larger number of participants, the program can provide a larger selection of activities, thus satisfying the different interests of different students. Recipient organizations may be more willing to join the program since there is almost a guarantee that there will be participants in the program year after year.
- With the larger size of a mandatory program, more personnel and funds can be set aside, including having full-time specialists to design and manage the program.
Making it optional has several potential advantages:
- The students who are involved in it are more likely that they want to do it (I said more likely because it could be their parents asking/requiring them to do it). They are not forced to do something that they don’t want to do, which otherwise could lead to more alienation and resentment against the schools or people in authority.
- In general, the students involved will do a better job, and the recipients of the help will gain more benefits, since the involved students most likely want to do it.
- Being optional, the program can provide more flexibility in the design and execution of the program, and the students may tailor the activities or even create new activities. So it could provide a good learning experience to the students that they can use in the real world. Furthermore, such involvement in the design of the program can deepen the students’ interest in the program and correspondingly provide more benefits to the recipients.
- From a practical point of view, an optional program is much more realistic and much easier to implement, because most if not all of the activities will require students to go off-site to the recipients’ locations. This will create hardship for families who may not be able to arrange transportation or the schools may have to incur additional expenses for transporting the students. It is possible that for certain activities, the recipients can come to the schools to receive help, either during or after the regular school hours.
There is not necessarily a single correct answer to the question of whether such community involvement program should be mandatory or optional. It could depend on the specific school district and the particular school. One possibility is that the program could start as an optional program. If it is successful and as it grows, it could then become a mandatory program but with a subset of the activities that can be provided on-site at the schools.
My personal preference is that it should be an optional program, because when the students are involved in the program because they want to do it, then the true spirit of volunteering will be manifested in their activities. As explained earlier, it is much more practical to implement an optional program. Nevertheless, when making this decision, we should take into account the particular situation of any school district or school.
One final remark: How grading should be done for such community involvement activities if it were offered as a course. Whether the program is a mandatory course or an optional course, the grading should be done on a pass-or-fail basis. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to compare different activities. Furthermore, since the teachers are not the recipients, they are not in the best position to judge the effectiveness of the students. If we ask the recipients to grade the students, then we run into the problem of grading standardization across the recipient pool. Nevertheless, doing a bang-up job by a student can still be recognized and rewarded via recommendation letters for college or job applications.
In summary, I strongly endorse the idea of offering a community involvement program in public high schools. For the reasons discussed earlier, I suggest that it be an optional program, at least initially.