Community service versus ‘serving your community’


Some years ago, when I was visiting a high school classmate in a small town in Ohio, he showed me some benches near a bus stop and a small park. “Our high school kids built those and installed them,” he told me, “because the senior citizens told them they needed benches.” 

“Ah, community service,” I responded, but he corrected me. 

“We call it ‘serving your community,’ and not ‘community service,’ because they are not synonymous,” he told me. A school cannot serve its community unless the people in the school are connected to the community and its members, which means knowing the who, what, when, where, and why of its members. 

I learned from my friend that community service, though admirable, can be a check-off-the-box-and-satisfy-the-graduation-requirement activity. For example, the New York City Board of Education approaches community service with a list of what’s acceptable, and what’s not: 

  • Volunteering with an outside group — this can be done at educational centers, religious institutions, nursing homes, animal shelters, soup kitchens, food pantries, homeless shelters, other nonprofits, etc. Most of these examples provide a letter from their institution to indicate number of hours provided, and should be uploaded as documentation.
  • Running a drive or fundraiser event — coat, blood, clothing, toy, etc. Remember, donating the item is not, but working/organizing event is.
  • Organizing a run/walk for a cause (because it provides the time into the cause).
  • Writing letters to nursing homes, veterans, orphanages, etc.
  • Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.
  • Cleaning a highway/park/ocean or water source.
  • Service periods in the library, an office, a classroom, etc. (So to clarify the example of “currency” with this example, let’s say a student organizes 100 books in an hour … they receive an hour of community service, not 100 hours because they sorted 100 books. it is about service hours, not currency.)


Other sites list acceptable activities that qualify as community service, including picking up trash while taking a walk. Students are given a list, make a choice, and then keep records of their activity.

In contrast, the process of serving your community is thoughtful, deliberate, proactive, and open-ended — a process that young people own, from start to finish. Students must first figure out what their community wants and needs, which can only be determined by reaching out to community members and groups. It requires energy and intelligence, and a commitment of whatever time it takes to survey the community, and then design and complete the project (which the students also might have to raise funds for, and get official approval of). 

Serving your community actually has deep roots. There’s an official name, service-Learning, and even a federal definition: “Service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that connects academic curriculum to community problem-solving.” The initial federal legislation passed in 1990, and the website asserts that about 20 percent of schools have participated over the years.

The three words in the phrase “serving your community” are instructive. Serving is an active verb form: You’re doing something for others when you are serving. Being productive enhances one’s sense of self-worth. The two other words — your and community — convey membership and belonging, which is something we humans need and aspire to. 

This is not trivial. A lot of American students feel alienated from school. Many of those who attend school regularly are literally present but not engaged. Their bodies are there, but their minds and hearts are elsewhere. And huge numbers of our kids skip school; more than 25 percent were chronically absent during the school year 2021–22, the latest data available, meaning they were absent at least 10 percent of the time. A recent New York Times editorial noted that even in affluent school districts, absenteeism is a problem, citing New Trier Township High School in Illinois, where 38 percent of seniors were chronically absent.

Some in power want to get tough on these truants, but even if harsh policies could force young people back into schools, that wouldn’t do anything to engage them. The opposite, more than likely. Pity the poor teachers with rooms full of hostile young people.

What’s required are changes that make school more interesting, more challenging, and more enjoyable for young people (and their teachers). Serving your community is one route to engagement. That should start as early as the elementary school. It’s never too early.

Public education is under attack from right-wing ideologues, whose voucher policies threaten to bankrupt public schools. Apparently, these wacky but powerful people intend to starve public education, and then condemn it because it’s not “effective.” 

Supporting public education isn’t charity, because it’s in your own self-interest to give all young people maximum opportunities to grow and learn. Keep in mind that 90 percent of our children attend public schools, meaning that high school graduates are maintaining the airplanes you and your grandchildren fly in; monitoring your spouse’s IV drip in the hospital; and repairing the gas main leak in your neighborhood. 


John Merrow has been an education correspondent for “PBS NewsHour” and NPR. He lives in Edgartown.


  1. Vouchers, home schooling and private schools are rising not due to right wing ideologues but because public education has failed in general and all the statistics show this.

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