New graduation requirement delayed

Published 9:06 pm Saturday, August 11, 2012

Suffolk Public Schools has confirmed that implementation of community service graduation requirements will be delayed one year at the request of the Virginia State Board of Education.

At a meeting Thursday, School Board members unanimously supported delaying the planned 50-hour community service graduation requirement until the 2013-2014 school year.

Two other state board recommendations were also approved, which would ban the district from arranging placements with political and religious organizations — although students could organize these placements themselves — and reduce hours required for students who come to Suffolk as juniors or seniors.

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The state board has approved community service requirements for graduation before, most recently in Martinsville schools, but Suffolk is pioneering the idea in Hampton Roads.

Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Deran Whitney pitched the community service plan to the state board meeting in Richmond last month.

The one-year delay would give the district time to work through any issues with the plan before implementation, Deputy Superintendent Jacqueline Chavis said. The plan still needs final approval from the state board.

Suffolk School Board members voted to approve the community service plan in May, but state board approval was needed as it exceeds minimum graduation requirements.

Board member Thelma Hinton raised concerns at Thursday’s meeting, including that the new requirements may present an obstacle to academically struggling, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged students.

“I believe in volunteerism, but to demand it, to make it mandatory, I’m having a problem with that,” Hinton said. “I’m looking at the students who struggle academically and who sometimes fall by the wayside, and children with disabilities.”

Hinton also said that she feels that children involved in sports are already doing community service.

But exceptions contained in the new regulations would neutralize these concerns, board Attorney Wendell M. Waller said.

“We will do everything we can to support students in every situation,” Chavis added.

High school is a good time to teach young people about volunteering, board member Linda Bouchard said.

“It will get them into the habit of helping their neighbors, so to speak,” she said.

Diane Foster said the issue was being overcomplicated.

“It’s as simple as you mow your neighbor’s grass because they’re sick,” she said. “I just don’t think it’s that hard to give 50 hours, and it can be over your entire high school career.”

Guidance counselors will oversee the program, district Superintendent Deran Whitney said. Students would complete forms, signed off on by the people or organizations they volunteer for, to document hours.

“Students get a list of groups already partnered with us so they know where to go,” Chavis said.