Catlin Gabel’s Struggle to Inspire Community Service Enthusiasm

By Katie Fournier '14

Elise '14 volunteering in the Lower School. (Photo: Nico Hamacher)

Elise ’14 volunteering in the Lower School. (Photo: Nico Hamacher)

Catlin Gabel aims to instill its students with humility, compassion, and insight into the real world through regular service to the community, both at the school and in the greater Portland area. But how effective is the school in that aim?

The ideal community service allows the student to have the freedom to choose where and when they do their community service, while still maintaining the discipline to occasionally sacrifice their own free time to help others.

Right now this ideal is not being acknowledged by Catlin Gabel’s community service requirements. In the past, Catlin Gabel required a minimum of 15 hours of community service a year from each student, but this year the school reformed the community service system.

Instead of hours, community service at Catlin is now measured in “experiences.” In other words, each outing related to community service is counted towards a number of experiences and hours a year, divided by off-campus and on-campus. Experiences are distinguished from hours in that there is no minimum or maximum amount of time that restricts what counts as an experience.

More specifically, freshmen and sophomores are required to “research and explore service,” participate in four hours of on-campus service a year, and one off-campus experience a semester.

Finally, upperclassmen are required to either complete three hours of on-campus service, lead or plan one off-campus experience, and participate in two off-campus experiences for the year, or complete three hours of on-campus service and participate in four off-campus experiences for the year.

This system, while an improvement on the hours system of years past, implies that a fixed number of hours or outings is enough, and doesn’t push students to contribute and make discoveries independently of a fixed number of time or number of locations or outings.

C&C leaders should be able to arrange projects for their students, but teachers should also set an example by regularly leading community service outings so that students can volunteer to join a group of other students if the activity suits their interest.

Community service activities should also be more visible in the community, which can be achieved by placing opportunities in the daily bulletin, making announcements during assemblies, and leading more discussions about the types of community service that students at Catlin Gabel engage in during extended C&Cs.

Service should also be valued more—the school should encourage people to be more vocal about what exactly they do for community service, and how it has impacted them on a more personal level. There could be an assembly devoted to the mutual sharing of stories between students rather than giving formal speeches.

Catlin Gabel has numerous options when it comes to organizing a community that truly encourages community service, and it shouldn’t limit itself by trying to create concrete guidelines in the curriculum.

Community service works best when it is an organic part of the community, and students begin to feel safe and excited about doing it. All the school needs is for a few people to take the initiative without feeling that they need to fulfill certain criteria to give back to the community.

When it comes to community service, students crave a personal experience more than anything else. They want to feel that they have made some difference in the improvement of other people’s lives, and they want to feel that they got something positive out of the service as well.

They don’t want or need the impersonal, mechanical process of counting hours or “experiences” in the way that the school forces them to do currently. All the student body needs is a little encouragement and inspiration: something that teachers, community leaders, and older students already have to offer in abundance.