Caring for animals, tutoring kids, helping seniors volunteer hours are more than a graduation must, they are life lessons.
Vilma Sooknanan cleans cat cages, Maxx Carroll teaches children how to cook and Michael Rosenthal rolls wheelchairs at a hospital.
What does this have to do with high school education?
The three and almost all other South Florida high school students have to venture outside of the classroom to earn their diplomas, doing what schools call "community service."
Broward public schools require 40 hours to graduate. Palm Beach County public schools require 20, and most private and charter schools require at least that much.
The purpose: To give them a taste of the real world, and perhaps explore a career.
And create a habit of volunteering.
"We hope that when they finish high school they'll continue service," says Mike Roland, student activities liaison for the Broward School District.
About half of U.S. public schools require community service, up 20 percent since 1979, according to a national study. Broward schools started honoring students for volunteer service in 1989, but the big bang came with the mandatory requirement in 1999. Palm Beach County began requiring hours in 2004.
Broward School Board member Bob Parks says encouraging community service has launched all kinds of new projects, including mentoring and tutoring, after-school assistance and food collections.
"We had the idea for community service, and the kids have just run with it," says Parks, a 23-year School Board member. "It doesn't need marketing or pamphlets; the kids know they have to volunteer and once they get into it, the projects just become ongoing."
Sooknanan, a sophomore at South Broward High School, is part of the Humane Society of Broward County's volunteer program, which is so popular that even the waiting list is closed. Students work one four-hour shift a week for four months, and leave with 64 volunteer hours.
Sooknanan changes litter boxes and puts down fresh newspaper for about 100 cats.
Combined with her volunteer hours at beach cleanups and helping teachers at school, she's well on her way toward 250 hours, which she hopes will catch the eye of Nova Southeastern University, where she wants to study marine biology.
Broward students who earn at least 250 hours wear a silver cord at graduation.
"I would do it anyway, because I learn so much from it," Sooknanan says.
Required community service means Palm Beach and Broward counties' 123,000 public high school students troll around looking for something to do. Many, like Carroll, check in with Volunteer Broward, a clearinghouse for prospective volunteers and an official partner with the Broward School District.
Carroll, a junior at South Plantation High, has connected with FLIPANY, a nonprofit organization that offers affordable physical activity and nutrition to low-income families. He volunteers at 5K races and duathlons, and helps teach children about cooking and nutrition.
"It has really been a life-changing experience," says Carroll, who now is leaning toward a career as a sports trainer. "Now I want to find a career encouraging people to lead a healthier lifestyle."
Some complaints Before coughing up its online list of hundreds of volunteer possibilities, Volunteer Broward requires students to take a one-hour orientation.
Part of the hope is that some students get the bug a passion for something.
"We want to have them prepared so they'll volunteer forever, to create a lifelong commitment," executive director Dale Hirsch says. "This is where our leaders come from."
But there are also those who are just trying to squeak by with the minimum of 40 hours, and that's OK, too, Hirsch says.
"We get calls every April from seniors who want to walk in June," she says.
The requirements do draw some complaints.
Phil Petree, of Fort Lauderdale, a single parent of four, liked the idea of community service when his family moved here from Georgia in 2003.
His opinion has changed since then because, he says, the approval of hours seems "completely arbitrary" and he doesn't like ferrying children to yet another activity.
Then there's hour-scamming getting credited for hours that really weren't worked.
"I know of one kid who amassed his 250 hours by volunteering to take a nap on the couch in his father's office," Petree says.
The School District's Roland has heard those complaints and more, such as volunteer coordinators who offer "double hours," or teachers who dole out an hour for kids who bring in school supplies for their classroom.
"We monitor the best we can, and just keep telling people 'an hour is an hour, not more, not less,'" Rolandsays.
Not just book-smart Quick math: 40 hours is one long, 10-hour day a year for four years. Rosenthal, a junior at Atlantic High in Delray Beach, knocks that out many Saturdays at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis.
He escorts patients and brings them newspapers and meals. Combined with his math tutoring and work at a martial arts center, he's at 258 hours.
The No. 1 comment Rosenthal gets? "They all say, 'You should be a doctor.'"
He agrees. Now he wants to be a trauma surgeon.
Rosenthal's father, David, a police officer, says Palm Beach County's 20-hour requirement is a "ridiculously low number, considering we're trying to get our children more involved with the world."
Palm Beach County school officials say 20 hours is enough of a commitment.
"You can be book-smart all you want, but I'd say 90 percent of education occurs outside of the classroom," he says.
Silver cords increase While it's difficult to measure how volunteering as a teen sets a path for later in life, there's little question South Florida kids are more active than a decade or two ago.
Roland estimates that the number of students earning silver cords has tripled in the past 10 years. Of about 15,000 seniors, about 3,000 earn the honor.
"I'll be honest, I was one of the doubters," Roland says. "I had an objection to requiring it."
But Parks says community service ties into the School Board's concept of teaching the whole child and is part of character development.
"I may read a poem and remember it enough to pass a test, but this is something that will stay with them forever," Parks says.
Nick Sortal can be reached at nsortal@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4725.
It's her pet project See a video of Vilma Sooknanan volunteering at the Humane Society of Broward County. SunSentinel.com/teens
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