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Community service requirement approved

Published 9:38pm Thursday, September 27, 2012

Students hoping to graduate from Suffolk Public Schools now will be required to perform 50 hours of community service after the Virginia Board of Education gave final approval to the plan Thursday.

The requirement takes effect with students starting their freshman year in the fall of 2013.

The Suffolk School Board initially voted for the action in May, but the state board must approve any increased graduation requirements.

State board member Winsome Sears was the sole vote against the move on the nine-member board that meets in Richmond. She said she was concerned about students who have to help support their family through working or looking after younger siblings.

“I think it’s an increased burden on families that is not being taken into consideration,” she said. “It’s always wonderful for people to be part of their community. It’s a worthy goal. I just don’t want it to be a graduation requirement.”

The state board already had considered the request in July, when members recommended a handful of changes to the initial requirements. The Suffolk School Board approved those changes, which included pushing back implementation by a year, clarifying that service for religious organizations would qualify and requiring fewer hours of service for students who transfer in after their freshman year.

Pressed by board members at the meeting, Suffolk Superintendent Deran Whitney stopped short of saying he would prevent a student from graduating if he had not completed 50 hours of service.

“I think the main thing is to monitor it throughout so that doesn’t happen,” Whitney said. “One would hope it wouldn’t get to the point that that was the only reason that student wouldn’t be able to graduate.”

Whitney said guidance counselors would monitor students’ progress and encourage them to complete the hours early so it does not become a problem. He also added he would have the option of waiving the requirement for any student who had experienced a hardship and that schools would provide opportunities to meet the requirements during school hours, such as by reading to younger students or participating in food drives and the like.

Some board members also brought up the schools’ accreditation status. Two of the three high schools — King’s Fork and Lakeland — are accredited with warning after failing to meet math benchmarks for the Standards of Learning in the 2011-2012 school year. The prior year, they missed graduation rate benchmarks, though they made them this year.

Board members were concerned the new requirement could affect the graduation rate negatively.

“I think it will be a positive thing as far as actively engaging students beyond just school,” Whitney said. “If we can get them engaged, hopefully the focus can turn into the academics as well.”

Whitney agreed to report back to the board in future years on how students are progressing with the requirement and the resources committed to it.

Board member Chris Braunlich said he supported the move so teens can learn about the world around them.

“I absolutely hate, as a general proposition, the idea of mandatory volunteerism,” he said. “But I also know from too much personal experience that we’re in a society where students are becoming insular. They’re losing track of the greater society around them.”


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