RQ:How and why have civic engagement requirements for US public high school students changed since 1990 and to what extent has this affected their long-term outcomes as citizens?
In the United States civic engagement has been a crucial component of society, whether it be through political activism or lending a helping hand to our fellow neighbors. In recent years, youth participation in civic engagement has fluctuated, resulting in a growing number of high schools requiring them to complete a certain number of hours of service in order to graduate. This increase is most notably seen in the late 80s and early 90s when“…[v]olunteer rates among youth ages 16-19 soared from 13.4 to 24.5 percent between 1989-2007”(Youth Volunteerism, 79). There has been a range of reactions regarding the movement of mandatory participation in community service, from lawsuits to sheer enjoyment, which beckons the question, how has this requirement change since the 90s and how has it affected their long-term outcomes as citizens? Since the 90s there has been an even greater push for service because of several reasons including the obvious importance and figures in place that encouraged it, which in turn has created a population of youth with varying perspectives on volunteering.
Over the years, there has been an adverse reaction toward the graduation requirement of volunteering in the students’ communities. One such case is that of Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District in 1993.
“The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument that a district’s 60- hour service requirement amounted to “involuntary servitude” banned under the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. The amendment bans “forced labor through physical coercion,” not service that is “primarily designed for the students’ own benefit and education” by teaching them about the value of community work”
(Youth Volunteerism, 84).
This example, is obviously one of the most extreme reactions, surprisingly heard by a grand court. The Bethlehem case only further exemplifies the challenges schools face when trying to teach their students the value of community investment. One can assume what their immediate perspectives were upon fulfilling their requirement, which is a reflection of many youth: resentment and disdain. Researchers have attributed these attitudes to several factors like disorganization of service projects and imposing on the busy lives of the students. While mandating community service has been challenging in some respects, researchers have shown that it also inspires many students to do so as well.
At my former high school, Marble Hill School for International Studies in the Bronx, we were one of the few schools which required students to volunteer in the campus (there was a total of six small schools in the building at the time). I was invited to a student summit to discuss the effects of one volunteer club in particular, then known as Building with Books. When meeting with approximately 40 students from different high schools across the Bronx, we were asked to discuss the results of the survey we had taken, to which 90 percent of students agreed that by volunteering they were motivated to further advance themselves. Some students had become more civically engaged while others thought of attending college for the first time. Such results inspired the club organizers and school administrators who heard the news.