Graduation in jeopardy

Published 9:20 pm Friday, April 21, 2017

Most seniors haven’t met volunteer requirement

Less than two months from graduation, less than half of Suffolk Public Schools’ class of 2017 has met a key requirement to earn their diploma.

This class is the first from Suffolk to be required to complete community service hours in order to graduate. Seniors must complete 50 hours and log them with the school in order to receive their diplomas in June.

But less than 48 percent of the Class of 2017 has completed the requirement, according to numbers provided at Thursday’s School Board meeting. About a third of seniors haven’t even started logging hours.

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“I don’t think the students have taken the School Board seriously,” School Board member David Mitnick said on Thursday.

Director of Secondary Leadership Stenette Byrd III gave the report on the number of hours at the meeting.

“We still have some work to do,” he said, although he noted seniors were rushing to document hours, even as the data was being compiled.

He laid out steps seniors can still take to complete their service hours by graduation.

The three high schools will have service days on Saturdays to allow seniors to earn hours, he said. Students will be doing tasks such as tidying up the school grounds, painting and cleaning locker rooms.

A letter is being sent to parents explaining the requirement and telling them how many hours their child has logged, Byrd added. Reminders are also being sent to students and posted on the division website, and academic and career coaches are discussing the requirement with students.

In the future, Byrd said, the division will modify the transcript to provide regular updates on hours earned and assign hours to required classes, so that students will complete service hours as they do their classes.

School Board members were concerned about the numbers.

“Are we prepared to have 50 percent of our graduates graduate in June?” David Mitnick asked.

Superintendent Deran Whitney said he will evaluate each student on a case-by-case basis and “be prepared to offer waivers if we need to.”

Officials acknowledged the process hasn’t gone quite as planned. The School Board passed the requirement in 2012, and it was approved by the Virginia Board of Education.

“There’s some things we could have done differently,” Whitney said during Thursday’s meeting. Parental notifications will be more robust in the future, he said.

The original suggestion to students was that they split the hours among their freshman, sophomore and junior years, allowing them to complete the requirement well ahead of time.

“Our hope was that they would have completed their hours before their senior year,” Byrd said.

School Board member Judith Brooks-Buck suggested handing out a list, so seniors know of some places they can volunteer. She also suggested group trips to places like the food bank.

Community service is crucial later in life, including when applying to colleges, she said.

“They do ask not just for your SAT scores or for your grades,” she said. “They ask what have you done besides go to class?”