Gaming the system

Published 10:11 pm Tuesday, October 3, 2017

When the Suffolk School Board instituted community service as a requirement for graduation five years ago, one of the primary goals, members said, was to inculcate in the city’s graduates a sense of dedication to the duty that engaged citizens feel toward improving the place they call home.

Reasonable questions were raised at the time regarding the degree of engagement students would feel toward that goal if they were participating in community-service projects merely as a means of acquiring the necessary 50 hours needed for graduation.

After all, some argued, a real commitment to community service seems unlikely to result from having been assigned the task. Such a commitment tends to spring from inside a person — or, perhaps, from a lifetime of having been taught such values — rather than from having community service forced upon him.

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But the School Board approved the requirement, and, four years later, with last year’s senior class coasting along toward graduation, it was revealed that hundreds of seniors had not completed their community service requirement. Indeed, some had not yet begun to put up the hours they would need to graduate.

In the end, according to school officials, no student who met all the other requirements for graduation failed to amass the 50 hours serving their community that were stipulated under the new mandate. As it turns out, that had a lot to do with what the school system chose to accept as “community service.”

Although the vast majority of seniors did various projects for churches, nonprofit agencies, schools and other organizations that meet the classical definition of “community service,” several dozen of the students met the requirement by working at for-profit businesses.

An investigation by the Suffolk News-Herald, published in Sunday’s edition, revealed that dozens of students met the community-service requirement with at least some hours served at dollar stores, salons and barber shops, construction companies, dance schools and home health care agencies — businesses that typically pay employees.

There was no way to tell whether the students were paid for their hours or whether they served as unpaid interns. Either way, though, most folks in Suffolk would likely be surprised at the loose definition that was utilized in order to allow the school system to call its first year of the new mandate a success.

What’s especially telling is the change in rhetoric about the program by school officials.

Superintendent Dr. Deran Whitney told News Editor Tracy Agnew that the students’ for-profit experience showed initiative, and he believes they still learned something from the experience. “I’m very proud of the students,” he said. “I’m proud of them obtaining it, whether it was a nonprofit or for-profit organization. It helps the student as far as learning a trade, information about a business.”

That may very well be true, and internship programs are a staple of the college experience that can only benefit those with the initiative to get such experience in high school.

However, this was not sold to the school community as an internship program, and the lessons learned while stocking shelves at a dollar store are likely to have little overlap with those that might have been learned by cleaning up a park, filing papers at a free clinic or mentoring a first-grader.

It is entirely possible that some members of last year’s graduating class from Suffolk Public Schools learned something positive about the need for them to be engaged with their community. But, given the results of this first year under the new mandate, it seems likely that many of them simply learned how to game the system.

The world already has enough people with that particular skill.