Obama National Service Plan Promises Exciting Opportunities for Students

During a 2008 campaign speech in Colorado Springs, candidate Barack Obama spoke of his desire to to increase the number of K-12 and college students who give back to their local communities on a regular basis. Drawing upon his experience as a community organizer in Chicago’s South Side, Obama called for “shared sacrifice” to bring our communities closer together and outlined the details of the Obama-Biden National Service Plan. His plan promises exciting new opportunities for both K-12 and college students to serve on both the local and national level.

The Obama-Biden National Service Plan provides incentives for for middle and high school students to engage in at least 50 hours of community service each year and college students to perform 100 hours of service per year. College students who dedicate themselves to this commitment are eligible for a $4,000 tax credit under a recently proposed congressional bill. Additional funding will also be diverted to K-12 schools to help develop new service learning programs that support “meaningful community service with [in-class] instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience”. College students who benefit from a Federal Work-Study (FWS) position will also be affected as the plan calls for increasing the percentage of these positions that are supposed to go to community service jobs (i.e. tutoring) from 7 to 25 percent. In fact, the Federal Work Study program, which allocates funds to post-secondary institutions to support undergraduate part-time jobs, has typically encouraged universities that use FWS funds to support community service activities.

The plan currently has some political backing. On April 21, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which helps to fund the aforementioned goals and further defines the programs that will support the initiative. Both public and private schools will be eligible for community based-funding that emphasizes service-learning programs such as a “summer of service” in which students can earn up to $750 for participating in 100 hours of community service. Higher educational institutions are also eligible to be considered a “Campus of Service” and earn additional funds after demonstrating a record of considerable student civic engagement.

Indeed, the bill lends weight to the Obama administration’s efforts to infuse our country’s education system with service learning. Yet, there are certainly opponents to this effort that claim the emphasis on service is a more complicated task for schools to achieve than the Obama administration has let on. Howard Schweber, a political science professor writing for The Huffington Post, notes that the new service requirements will place a tremendous burden on colleges when they must hire additional outside laborers to work the cafeteria and library positions that students, now doing service work, formerly occupied. In addition, Schweber states that “this is a system that positively begs to be gamed”. The idealism that President Obama strives for risks being watered down as “service” becomes merely another college requirement. Moreover, the college students who choose to perform the 100 hours of service per year will potentially have to give up the more rigorous college courses that simply do not fit into their schedules.

Yet, while Schweber criticizes the plan for the additional effort it will require of college administrations, he does concede that there is potential for the service work to do “considerable good” adding that it will most likely change the nature of the college experience in the long term. And perhaps this is exactly what the Obama administration is meaning to accomplish. While Schweber is certainly justified in considering the economic, bureaucratic, and logistical costs of the plan we must not forget the strength of the message we send to students when we encourage them to commit their time to others. Integrating service learning into education is a tremendous undertaking but perhaps one worth committing to so as to not only transform our education system but also our world for the better.

How can your students get involved with community service NOW?

While the Obama administration has only just begun to take steps to ensure that the nation’s students are involved with their communities, there are certainly ways for K-12 and college students to pursue service in their area.

The Corporation for National and Community Service was established for the purpose of expanding service opportunities for Americans and has an “Interactive Program Selector” that allows users to answer a few questions and become matched with appropriate agencies.

Most universities have service learning offices that seek to connect students to their communities. There are often courses that promote service with faculty members receiving grants to design and implement such courses. See your student’s college website for more information or go to www.campuscompact.org for a more complete list of schools.

There are a number of primary schools cropping up that claim service learning as a distinct part of their mission. If you are a parent of a young student it may be worth looking into these schools if you have the ability to choose where your child receives their education. One school in St. Paul, MN has even changed their name to Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary. Go to www.servicelearning.org for more information on this increasingly popular learning strategy.

Written by: Julia Kantor


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