WHS Community Service System Shrouded with Gray Areas

WHS+Community+Service+System+Shrouded+with+Gray+Areas

WHS students participate in the annual trip to Rosenwald, helping children and earning service hours.

Sabrina Abesamis, Editor-in-Chief

The spirit of the holiday season typically reminds people to give back to those less fortunate and students at Wellington High have a lot of opportunities to do so. From food drives to the annual Rosenwald trip, a wide variety of charitable projects are available at WHS. These help not only those in need, but also benefit the students who participate as they earn community service hours.

For years, Palm Beach County high school students have been required to complete 20 hours of community service in order to graduate.

“The idea was to get students involved in some kind of community service, to think about people other than themselves,” Mr. Mario Crocetti, WHS Principal, said.

This desire to encourage volunteering has long since spread beyond just a requirement for a diploma ¾ colleges and scholarships are looking too. Unfortunately, placing such an emphasis on quantifying service has potentially caused the original purpose of the requirement to be lost in the eyes of students intent on graduating and/or getting into college.

With the entire documentation process based on the honor system, the mandate on volunteering has led to some gray areas regarding what counts as service. According to official school district policy and confirmed by the district’s High School Counseling Specialist Ms. Eunice Greenfield, only physical, unpaid hours of community service count towards the requirement.

However, the lack of enforcement and, perhaps, awareness of the rules has allowed the counting of donations of food, toys, and even blood as recordable hours along with the practice of doubling¾or even tripling¾hours for certain activities. These controversial arrangements prompt the question of what constitutes as “real service” when hours are tallied in such a manner.

The first controversial practice, allowing donations to count as hours, is widely used around school. Popular charity events such as St. Baldrick’s and Dance Marathon brightly advertise opportunities to earn a lump sum of hours for those who participate and raise a minimum amount of money. While it may not be directly monetizing community service, this practice certainly skirts the line regarding what counts as volunteer work. The idea that most attendees actually spend twenty hours raising money seems dubious, but quantifying the increase in awareness for a cause can be tricky.

“I think part of it, and it’s a bit of a gray area, is how did you do it,” said Crocetti, who formally approves SGA’s use of this practice. “Did you spend time sharing or explaining this cause to a neighbor and then this resulted in some donation helping this organization? That does come to what was intended, rather than simply writing a check.”

This mindset is also reflected in one of WHS’s most beloved traditions, the annual Rosenwald event, which includes a school-wide toy drive, culminating in a trip for a group of students to the local, low-income elementary school to distribute the gifts. For the toy drive, one hour of community service was awarded for every $10-valued toy donated. Like other school-sponsored events, this provides an opportunity for individual students to be rewarded for donating money, instead of time. However, Mrs. Melissa Varvarigos, SGA sponsor, claims students rarely take advantage of this opportunity.

“Surprisingly enough, I haven’t signed that many forms for community service,” said Varvarigos. “I probably had a total of ten toys out of the hundreds that we’ve gotten [where the students donating them asked for hours].”

Despite the lack of students abusing this privilege, it remains debatable whether the school should continue to condone the existence of the policy. Incentivizing these donations by giving out community service hours is being justified by the condition that these incentives are not used anyway. However, some would argue this is a win-win situation for both students and the organizers of the service project.

“At the end of the day, what’s the benefit?” said Varvarigos. “From my standpoint as an SGA sponsor…the benefit is that the students at Rosenwald are getting [toys].”

In contrast, the doubling and even tripling of hours is used to reward hard physical labor such as the campus beautification projects around school, led by National Honor Society and Environmental Club sponsor Mrs. Karen Clawson.

“In my opinion it’s more hard, manual labor,” said Clawson. “[The students are] in need of a shower when they get home rather than sitting next to a student helping with a reading lab or science lab.”

This incentive also encourages greater participation.

“When students were aware [that hours were tripled] they signed up in droves,” said Clawson. “I was astounded when we had 70 students. If we’d only doubled, we’d probably have only gotten half, but that’s just an estimation.”

Despite such outstanding results, even Mrs. Clawson had initial reservations regarding the policy.

“I had a little bit of a problem with tripling hours,” Clawson acquiesced. “Most students are in it for the hours and so, of course, if you double you’ll get more results. If you triple, you’ll get even more results. The school and the [Wellington Gardening] Club were spending an awful amount of money [on the plants]. We didn’t have the means otherwise to get them in the garden, get them wet, sprinkled and properly maintained… A lot of them would not have made it [otherwise]. It’s a tradeoff.”

Conversely, other clubs on campus, such as the Red Cross Club, refuse to give hours for donations or triple hours for manual labor.

“Converting donations into community service is weird and a bit immoral,” Jayleen James, Red Cross Club Senior President, said. “[Club members] don’t care about community service hours. We care about the cause and what it goes towards: saving people’s lives.”

Unfortunately, a number on a transcript cannot differentiate between actual hours that were spent directly helping a cause or simply donations or doubled/tripled hours.

“Anytime you go with an honor system, there will be people, not just students, who will take advantage of the situation,” said Crocetti.  “I’m not sure how we could get around that.”

“We have to trust the person…doing community service that they’re being honest,” said Mrs. Tarantino, a Guidance Office secretary who records students’ hours.

While this lack of fact checking seems to invite inaccuracies, no perfect solution exists.

“It would really become a record keeping nightmare if we had to document, say, face to face, with every agency or person that the students work with that what was on the [service log] was true,” said Crocetti.

“If we see that it’s something that we do not believe to be community service, we pull that student down and see if we can get it verified or we call the organization,” said Tarantino. “But in the eight or nine years I’ve been working here, I’ve never found that out. The kids are usually very honest.”

However, without a verification system in place, it is difficult to determine if students are indeed being honest. There is also a lack of awareness among students and teachers alike that such practices like tripling hours and giving hours for donations are technically against school district policy.

“I’ve never heard of that [rule against tripling hours] and I’ve been teaching in this school district for decades,” said Clawson after being informed of the district’s policy. “We were never given that information… If the district wants us to only honor single hours, they need to make that knowledgeable across the board.”

“There is no documentation,” said Greenfield regarding records of the ban on donations counting as hours and the doubling/tripling of hours. “It’s the intent of the policy.”

However, Ms. Greenfield also stated that the school district does not have any plan to increase awareness of the policy. Consequently, both students and teachers are most likely oblivious to this policy and unaware they are breaking it when they do.

The ramifications of this lack of awareness of the policy and the inability to verify hours stretch beyond just graduation. Colleges and scholarships also take community service into account, although Mr. Crocetti believes this is not necessarily a reason for concern.

“Anybody who’s offering scholarships based on community service, isn’t just looking at a number on a piece of paper,” said Crocetti. “They want the details. It’s not even necessarily about the hours involved. Some organizations see a big difference between did you do ten hours at a beach clean up or did you organize it.”

There are also certain programs, including the Bright Futures Scholarship, that only check for the minimum hour requirement—starting at 75— without inquiring about how those hours were earned. In this case, an advantage is given to higher-income students who have the option to simply donate money rather than time to a charity.

Ultimately, the system has allowed these gray areas to thrive. Thus, the decisions lay with each student and adult on what she considers true community service and if serving oneself while serving others still counts as volunteering.