New graduation requirements on hold

Published 9:40 pm Thursday, July 26, 2012

A new requirement for Suffolk Public Schools graduates to have 50 hours of community service under their belts may have to wait until next year to take effect.

Superintendent Deran Whitney pitched the new requirement to the Virginia Board of Education during a meeting in Richmond Thursday. Board members applauded the intent but expressed concerns about which types of service earn credit and the ability of a transfer student to complete the requirement in less than four years.

The need to make clarifications — and the fact the board’s next meeting is not until Sept. 27, after school starts — mean the new requirements likely won’t apply to this year’s freshmen.

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The Virginia Board of Education must approve the requirement because it is an increased requirement above the minimum standards for graduation. The Suffolk School Board voted to approve the new rules in May.

After the requirement takes effect, the next group of freshmen will be the first to be required to complete the community service. Approved activities could include volunteering for charitable organizations, political campaigns or government internships; participating in Boy or Girl Scouts, Boys or Girls State, Model General Assembly or JROTC; or participating in school-sponsored extracurricular activities that have a civics focus.

Any work for which pay is received or that is for a family member would not count. A parent and a nonprofit representative or the recipient of the service must verify the student’s participation. Students will submit a form each year to school counselors with the hours they’ve served.

“Let me applaud you a great deal,” said state Board of Education member Chris Braunlich. “I cannot think of any activity that would have a more profound effect on character than helping those who are less fortunate.”

Other board members also were pleased but had concerns.

“We’re all pleased that the board are trying to make these young people understand that they’re not the center of the universe,” said Billy Cannaday Jr.

However, he said religious activities should be specifically included in the list of activities that would earn hours.

“Many people get concerned, but it’s really not a church-state issue,” he said. “It’s a choice of how to give.”

Diane Atkinson agreed.

“I think you need to create as many options available to your students,” she said. ‘It’s really what their choice is related to how they will meet this requirement.”

Atkinson also expressed concern at the proposal to waive the requirement for students who transfer as juniors or seniors. Sophomore transfers, also, should not have to complete it, she said.

“I don’t think you’ve left yourself the leeway,” she said. “They would need more time.”

In addition to waiving the requirement for transfer students, Whitney also would have the power to dismiss it for other extenuating circumstances, according to the proposal. Those include student illness or disability, death of a family member, natural disaster or homelessness.

Board members also suggested a mechanism to make it clear the schools are not purposely funneling students to one political campaign or another, but that students are choosing for themselves.

The state board has approved community service requirements for graduation before, most recently in Martinsville schools, which require 40 hours.

Whitney said he has heard good response from parents, students and the community about the proposal.