Can service learning help recent high school graduates?


On the night of his election, the new governor of Maryland, Wes Moore, discussed one of his key issues throughout his campaign— education. He discussed free pre-K throughout the state and implementing service year programs for high school graduates. If implemented, Maryland would be the first state in the nation to have a service program. Moore has been a firm champion in implementing service year programs throughout the state, which he reaffirmed in his acceptance speech, “Because if we build a true spirit of service in our state, it is service that will help to save us.”

Maryland ranks fifth in the nation for having great schools based on college readiness, college curriculum breadth, graduation rate, math and reading performance, math and reading proficiency, and underserved student performance. Based on these six factors, the state’s graduation rate amongst high school students remains high. In the 2020-21 school year, the graduation rate was 87.20%, a slight increase from the 2019-20 school year. However, only 60.5% of graduates chose to enroll in post-secondary institutions, a decrease from previous cohorts. How can the state help those individuals navigate life beyond high school? The answer could lie in Maryland’s requirement for service learning.

Maryland’s State Board of Education has a long history crafting an academic environment that accepts and cultivates service learning for students. In the 1970’s Dr. Ernest L. Boyer, U.S. Commissioner of Education, initiated statewide programs to increase community engagement through service learning. Change came in the early 1980’s when the Board of Education began to require all school systems to offer credit learning community service opportunities for high school students. This decision was met with resistance as many did not agree with mandatory service. However, 1992 saw the enforcement and regulation of current day standards. Today, Maryland high school students must either complete 75 hours of community service or complete a locally designed program in student service that has been approved by the state superintendent before they receive their high school diploma.

Service learning allows high school students to gauge their interests while receiving academic credit. Students can apply a variety of skills outside of the classroom and into real-world settings. Teachers play a critical role in the implementation of this program. Authors Andrea L. Ziegert and Kim Marie McGoldrick have highlighted the importance of teachers who foster a relationship between learning and service, “Instead of simply asking students to open their textbooks, teachers using service-learning engage students in a critical thinking exercise to examine their world.” 

Recently, Governor Moore signed the Senate 551 bill, also known as the Service Act of 2023, which created service year programs in Maryland and allow high school graduate students the opportunity to work with organizations like AmeriCorps while receiving compensation. In addition, this bill led to the creation of a new department, the Department of Service and Civic Innovation, and a new position, the Secretary of Service and Civic Innovation. Maryland’s service year program would be the first in the nation to be sponsored by the state by utilizing AmeriCorps to aid in finding student participants and securing federal funding. 

Currently, no other states besides Maryland have a state sponsored service year program.  Maryland’s service year program incorporates the funds of the state and national government, but is voluntary. Although service year programs contain fruitful benefits like developing practical skills, earning money, and meeting new people, there are still concerns over whether it should be mandatory or voluntary. An overwhelming majority support national service that is voluntary if supported by the government. However, declining trust between the public and the government plays into negative perspectives some Americans have with national service. The service-learning requirement in Maryland could serve as a measurement for success concerning the new service year program. The pandemic has caused many to rethink future prospects for their careers and high school graduates are no exception. 200 participants will be a part of the program in the first year and by 2027 the state will have a total of 2,000 participants. This program can alleviate the stress that many graduates have about their future, and it could allow graduates to rethink certain prospective majors and careers. Furthermore, it can foster a sense of intersectional identity between recent graduates and their communities.