Rising freshmen face mandatory community service

Published 9:05 pm Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Suffolk Public Schools is encouraging rising ninth-graders to start planning early for the 50 hours of community service they are required to complete for graduation.

A 16-page handbook on the new requirement has been sent home with rising ninth-graders and has been posted online.

The requirement, given final approval by the Virginia Board of Education last September after the Suffolk School Board offered its support, will help make graduates “career- and college-ready,” said Deputy Superintendent Jacqueline Chavis.

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At a School Board meeting prior to the state board vote, district superintendent Deran Whitney stopped short of saying failure to complete the 50 hours would result in failure to graduate.

He described a situation in which guidance counselors would be actively involved in monitoring progress and encouraging participation. Whitney will reserve authority to waive the requirement in cases of hardship and other extenuating circumstances.

Chavis is enthusiastic about the benefits of mandatory community service. “If a student is going directly into the workforce, employers are very interested” in seeing that young applicants have experience in a work setting, she said.

“We also know (that) when students apply for college, colleges want to see how well-rounded students are.”

Community service hours will be documented with a community-service verification form, according to the handbook.

Students entering ninth grade in the fall are required to complete 16 hours in that first year and 17 hours each in grades 10 and 11. Fewer hours are required for those transferring into the school system at a later stage, and documented hours from a high school outside Suffolk Public Schools will be awarded credit.

Approved community service activities are divided into direct service, such as working with senior citizens; indirect service, like organizing a fundraiser for a special cause; and advocacy, which could include working for a local political organization.

Chavis said students could stage their community service hours around activities or causes of personal relevance.

“It really depends on the interests of the child,” she said. “You don’t want to say to them you have to do it here or you have to do it there.”

Progress toward the 50-hour goal will be included on official transcripts, academic career plans and parent-verified credit letters.

Students can take heart that they may already be involved in activities that would count, according to Chavis.

“They may not realize how much they are already doing,” she said. “Maybe they are involved in community work with the church, synagogue or mosque.”

Students who successfully complete the 50-hour requirement, receive a standard or advanced studies diploma, complete Virginia and U.S. history and Virginia and U.S. government scoring at least a B, and maintain good attendance and behavior will be awarded the State Board of Education’s Excellence in Civics Education Seal.

The policy’s initial year may reveal growing pains, Chavis said, adding, “We will be very open and flexible with parents and students.

“We seriously think the benefit will outweigh any issue or concerns we have to work through.”