The Community Service Dimension

About this article

This article from the August-September 1997 issue of Momentum contends that service hours done solely within a course in the religious studies program may not be the most effective way to educate students in their faith or in the ways of justice. John Hoffman suggests an integrated model that allows students to have more time with the poor and marginalized so that students will rise to a higher level of thinking, recognizing that works of charity are necessary but insufficient solutions.

  • A high school senior leans over the shoulders of two 9-year-olds struggling with math homework in a tutoring program at the community center.
  • Two students carry food baskets up the narrow flight of stairs to the residents of a housing project.
  • At the nursing home, a young man reads quietly to a couchful of elderly listeners.
  • After serving dinner at the soup kitchen, three young women scrub the pots and pans used in preparing the meal.
  • A young athlete is guided by a varsity player through a regimen of warm-up exercises for a Special Olympics competition.
  • Armed with hammers, three students nail new panelling in place in an apartment undergoing rehab.

In scenes like these across the country, Catholic high school students are engaged in a variety of community activities as part of the educational program of their schools. Since the publication of the pastoral letter To Teach as Jesus Did (1972), in which the American Catholic bishops strongly urged service as a primary goal of Catholic schools, service programs have become an accepted way for students to reach out to the poor and marginalized.

A common model
Typically, opportunities for service are found within the school's religious studies program. In what has become a common model, students are required to take a course in social justice which includes a requisite number of service hours.

In the context of the academic course, students are presented with the theoretical and theological foundations of the church's teaching on social justice and asked to reflect, through journals and essays, on the ways in which their service has embodied and realized those teachings.

In most schools, service hours are completed during the senior year and constitute one of the requirements for graduation, although other service opportunities may be encouraged throughout the student's high school career.

The popularity of social justice courses and service programs in Catholic high schools is the direct result of the many benefits they offer. They provide a practical setting for the developmental process by which students move away from the self-centeredness of adolescence to a fuller understanding of adult responsibility to the larger community.

The principles of the church's teaching on social justice are better understood when the process of critical reflection links the theoretical and experiential dimensions. Prolonged encounters with particular persons who have been marginalized in society lead students to a higher level of reflective thinking.

The student who works with the same homeless persons over a period of time, for example, is better able to recognize that works of charity are necessary but insufficient.

One senior who served meals for a number of weeks to the same group of homeless men said, "I've been going to the kitchen and helping fix meals for two months now, and Mr. Barnes is still homeless." That experience of empathetic frustration is the ground out of which a fuller inquiry into the nature of structural injustice can grow.

Significantly, an increasing number of students who have participated in high school service programs have chosen to continue their involvement in the community at later points in their lives.

Young men and women are joining organizations such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or returning to their parishes with renewed enthusiasm for membership in a community dedicated to growth in faith and justice. In many instances, these involvements have been shaped and influenced by service experiences in high school programs.

Limitations of the model
Despite the visible success of community service programs in Catholic high schools, those programs have a number of limitations. As noted, the service requirement typically falls at the end of a student's academic career. At this time, students are engaged in a full schedule of classes, applying for colleges and participating in school activities to a maximum degree.

The service component tends to become one more thing tacked on to an already full agenda rather than being the central piece of the students' educational experience. And, although the addition of 30 to 40 hours of community service is large enough to be perceived as a burden, it is perhaps insufficient time for the prolonged contact with the poor and marginalized that gives rise to critical reflection.

Furthermore, because service tends to be confined to religious studies, education for faith and justice is "something we do for religion class." Its centrality in the curriculum is lost.

These disadvantages of the most commonly used service education model suggest a need for greater integration of community service in the lives of students and in the curriculum. To stimulate new thinking, I suggest the following design.

An integrated model
In this integrated design, the senior year would be split into two semesters. By employing block scheduling in the first semester, the students would complete their curriculum requirements in math, science and languages. The second semester curriculum would consist of two elements: a community service internship for three days of the week, and an interdisciplinary humanities/social studies/social justice course for the remaining two days.

For the internship, students would be provided with job placements within local organizations and agencies with a clear service dimension. Regular, face-to-face contact with persons who are served by the organization would be requisite.

For meeting the expectations of an essentially full-time job (8 a.m. to 2 p.m.), such as being at work on time and being accountable to supervisors, students would receive a stipend comparable to the minimum wage, with some portion as the student's own and the remainder directed to a senior fund.

At the end of the term, the fund would be allocated to the service providers of the community according to the decision of the students, thus providing a real exercise in distributive justice.

The classwork aspect of this model would consist of a series of seminars and directed readings, organized around social justice themes and using materials from literary, theological and sociopolitical sources.

Through teacher presentations, directed writing projects, ongoing discussions of issues and shared reflection on their placement experiences, the students would address issues ordinarily treated in isolation in their English, social studies and social justice classes.

In a model of this sort, education for faith and justice would no longer be a single or "additional" item in the curriculum, but would become both the culmination and centerpiece for that curriculum.

Institutional support
Regardless of the model employed, the value of service education must be understood and supported by the entire school. Throughout the school's implicit curriculum--the network of institutional practices, attitudes and commonly assumed beliefs--critical reflection on the justice dimension of the educational mission must be a constant focus.

The goals of education for faith and justice are undercut if, for example, counselors provide uncritical career advice, or sports programs embody unsportsmanlike attitudes and behaviors, or technology education encourages students to be merely instrumental users of the systems.

The full integration of the service curriculum in the school will occur to the extent that the faculty and staff as a whole are engaged, within their own spheres, in the mission of educating for faith and justice.

Mr. Hoffman, who formerly directed the community service program at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., is the principal of Monroe Catholic High School in Fairbanks, Alaska

Service: A Tradition
Patrice Hughes, SC
Executive Assistant to the President/NCEA

This past spring I joined the thousands who gathered in Philadelphia for The Presidents' Summit for America's Future, which focused on volunteerism. As a representative of Catholic education and your association, I had an opportunity to share our good news with leaders of the civic, business, educational and religious communities.

The impact and range of the Catholic educational community's efforts both promote Catholic social teaching and support the summit goal. At roundtable discussions, press conferences and informal gatherings, I stressed these facts about Catholic education:

  • Adults provide voluntary service in 95% of 7,005 elementary schools and in 92% of 1,226 secondary schools.
  • Over 85% of 18,000 parish religious education programs count on volunteer teachers. More than 90% of elementary schools promote community service projects. Some 89% of religious education programs require community service for confirmation.
  • Moral education with an emphasis on community service is rated by administrators as one of the "top three" achievements in Catholic high schools. Over one-third of Catholic colleges and universities report community service programs.
  • Mentoring and tutoring are flourishing in Catholic schools due to collaborative programs with business.
  • At the 1997 NCEA convention, students from the 101 Catholic schools in Saint Paul and Minneapolis held a "Celebration of Service" during which they presented 375,000 community service hours to the archbishop, lieutenant governor and city mayors.

One gentleman from a nonprofit organization asked me, "What more can you do? Why are you here?"

I responded, "To encourage and support this service initiative which is a traditional practice in Catholic education."


This article originally appeared in Momentum, the journal of the National Catholic Education Association. It is reprinted here by permission of the NCEA. For more information about the NCEA, go to their web site at

Published August 1, 1997.