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By Janita Poe, Tribune Education Writer

Web-posted Monday, September 15, 1997; 6:03 a.m. CDT

The idea of requiring students to do charity work before graduating from high school seems innocuous enough; students would learn civic responsibility, community groups would get extra volunteers and school officials would end up with a more socially responsible student body.

But a recent trend in the last decade toward mandating community service for public school students has touched off a raging debate on the constitutionality of the practice and has resulted in lawsuits filed by students and their families in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New York.

The Chicago Public Schools recently announced a plan to mandate such service, joining a number of suburban and local Catholic schools that already require it.

To the most vocal critics, school service mandates smack of fascism and even bring to mind the type of nasty child labor abuses Charles Dickens railed against. Never mind that requiring service violates some of the most basic rights guaranteed under the 13th and 14th Amendments, they say.

"We aren't against community service," said Thomas Steirer, whose case against the Bethlehem, Pa., public schools in 1990 for requiring his two daughters to do community service went all the way to the Supreme Court before it was resolved in favor of the district. "We are against the schools forcing kids to work."

From civics courses to the promotion of popular service clubs, schools always have encouraged students to get involved in their communities. But with the busy, complicated lives of high schoolers today, many adults say getting an adolescent to volunteer time is about as easy as asking him or her to make a 9 p.m. curfew.

Carlos Azcoitia, Chicago's deputy chief education officer, said educators here and across the country are concerned that many students are no longer inclined to work for free in their communities. By requiring community work, Azcoitia said many students may learn the value of civic service.

"We want to ignite interest in service and develop character," Azcoitia said. "Students need to learn that they can become resources for their community."

Indeed, it seems most students at schools in the region that currently require charity work say volunteerism helps them. Students at some schools say they've benefited from free job training, interaction with diverse groups of people in the day-to-day work world and lessons about health, poverty and other social issues.

Danielle Borsilli, a senior at Queen of Peace High School in Burbank, has completed more than 200 hours of community service even though her school requires only 60. Borsilli said she actually learned that she did not want to become a physical therapist by working around people in the medical profession.

"(Service) opens up so many doors; you find out so much about what is out there," said Borsilli, one of about half of all the 386 seniors in the girls' school to already have completed more than the minimum requirement. "And it doesn't just help them, it helps you, too."

Other students say by mandating service administrators make it seem more like a dreaded chore than an expression of personal values. Still, others say the hours cut into time they could be using to earn money for a car or college. "If students don't want to do it they shouldn't have to," said Josh Valle, a senior at Joliet Township High School, West Campus.

Locally, the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora also requires community service.

According to the National Youth Leadership Council in Minneapolis, 17 public school districts across the country require volunteer work for graduation. The Atlanta Public Schools, considered the first to require volunteer work, began its 75-hour community service program in 1984. Since then, districts in Detroit, Dade County, Fla., Cincinnati and the District of Columbia--as well as in the entire state of Maryland--have begun making service work a prerequisite for high school graduation.

This month, Chicago Public Schools officials said they would begin implementing the mandatory community service program--part of the district's 1996 high school restructuring plan--with the freshman class of 1998. The district is scheduled to convene a 15-member community service task force on Sept. 23. The team will determine how many hours of work students will be required to complete, whom the student will report to and what type of service will be acceptable in the program.

Though the committee is responsible for developing the program, schools chief Paul Vallas said he expects the requirement to be for 60 hours and that social studies teachers will serve as advisers and directors in the program. Vallas also said students could work for voter registration drives and church-based charity groups, but they would not be able to campaign for candidates or proselytize. "We will draw the line on any act that would be religion-based, politically based or any activity that involves protest like handing out literature at abortion clinics," Vallas said. "There are obvious activities that cross the line."

Like most public school officials requiring service, Chicago schools officials say they developed the requirement out of concern about waning civic responsibility among students. Vallas and other officials said students could volunteer in tutorial programs, local churches, nursing homes, centers for the disabled and non-profit community organizations. "Hopefully, it will become a labor of love," Vallas said. Even though it is only in the planning stages, the schools' proposal already has angered some parents.

Belinda Wills, a single parent who works as a hotel clerk and has two students in Chicago public high schools, said she would prefer her children concentrate on making good grades because she wants them to seek out financial assistance and scholarships for college. "To me, this is something people at home should be requiring their children to do," Wills said. "Mandating it is wrong. Big Brother is getting too big."

Some other large school systems, such as Oak Park River Forest High School and Evanston Township High School District 202, do not mandate service work, but they have begun placing a greater emphasis on service by hiring full-time community service coordinators and expanding opportunities for students to work on community projects.

Barbara Zimmer, who began working part time as the Evanston schools service coordinator in 1990, said district officials decided not to mandate service because they did not want to force students into unpaid work. In addition, she said Evanston and many other communities actually do not have enough good volunteer jobs for high school students. And by forcing kids to find volunteer work, educators fail to teach the value of real service, she said.