By Ariel Konieczko
It’s no secret that every student at Beacon High School has a unique personality, style, and set of interests. In a school so rich with academic and creative diversity, teens can easily become star athletes, award-winning writers, or outspoken activists. However, come October of their sophomore year, all Beacon students embark on the same unforgettable journey towards a high school diploma: they attempt to fulfill one of the school’s most time consuming graduation requirements.
What exactly is this non-negotiable task? Fifty hours of community service.
Most students fly through their hours without much thought as to the origins of Beacon’s volunteer program. In the eyes of Steve Stoll and Ruth Lacey, who founded Beacon High School in 1993, community service has an invaluable and lasting effect on students and their neighborhoods. Today, history teacher Kevin Jacobs keeps Beacon’s community service tradition alive by managing students’ placements. Explaining Stoll and Lacey’s ideology, Mr. Jacobs said, “They saw community service as part of their vision for what they wanted the school to be. What they wanted the experience of students to be and what they wanted students to learn.”
After receiving several lessons in advisory about the importance and expectations of community service, sophomores are sent off with a list of neighborhood non-profit organizations and are assigned the task of “locking down” a placement within several weeks.
Finding a nonprofit match might be much easier said than done, but no student goes without one. An appropriate placement fulfills three major criteria. First, the organization must meet Mr. Jacob’s bare-minimum standards: it must be a non-profit, based in New York City, with the ability to provide students with at least 50 hours of work. Second, the organization should seamlessly fit into student’s schedules, never clashing with extracurriculars. Mr. Jacobs, who knows many busy students pick organizations based on convenience, said,“If you end up falling back on tutoring at a middle school, you’re still going to learn something or help out.”
Laura Lewko, a 10th grader, completed her 50 hours last month at Recycle-A-Bicycle in Brooklyn. On a typical afternoon, Laura would work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, disassembling used bicycles for parts. Laura, who explained, “When I started out, I never thought I’d learn to like this type of work,” chose Recycle-A-Bicycle for its flexible hours. As a newfound climate-safety enthusiast, Laura said, “by the end of my service, I learned a new skill, met new people, and felt like I was making a positive contribution to the wellbeing of our planet.”
If a student can meet the first two criteria when selecting a placement, they’ve officially hit gold. An added bonus is if they’re also at an organization that will provide them with interest-aligned skills needed for the future.
“We try to get you guys to think about the issues you care about. What kind of change do you want to see in the city?” Mr. Jacobs said.
“Look for organizations that give you a little experience or that really allow you to contribute,” Mr. Jacobs added. “Some of you guys are thinking through ‘things that really matter to me,’ whether that’s healthcare or caring for the elderly.” Ideally, young environmentalists should work out in nature and aspiring politicians in law offices.
Looking back on their own experiences, upperclassmen offer perspective. While Beacon senior Cali Carss no longer volunteers at the public childcare program Abundant Waters, she shared a word of advice saying, “It [volunteering] may be hard to fit into a busy schedule, but you’ll enjoy it so much more if you approach it as something you’re passionate about rather than a means to an end.”
Along with Cali, other Beacon juniors and seniors remarked on potential changes they would like to see in the current community service curriculum. The majority of upperclassmen who were surveyed raved over the important contribution community service has to Beacon’s culture. However, some, like junior Alice Rosenberg, wouldn’t have minded “a longer timeline or check-ins, in case circumstances at the placement go wrong.”
Almost all upperclassmen agreed on the necessity for fewer restrictions. In one statement, senior Sammy Bovitz, who wasn’t allowed his original program choice back in sophomore year, said “I worked as a teacher’s assistant for a year at my Hebrew school… how is that not community service? That feels wrong.”
Unlike individual community service, there’s no fine print that comes alongside large-scale service projects. Mr. Jacobs recalled how in 2012, post-Hurricane Sandy, Beacon abruptly changed from a high school to a crisis response center, helping to rebuild a devastated New York. For this “huge, school wide project,” Mr. Jacobs proudly reflected, “we stopped school for a week a few months after November and had arranged to send out 1,000 kids to 40 or 50 sites around the city.” Mr. Jacobs and other Beacon leadership spent around a month planning the week of service. Mr. Jacobs recalls phoning numerous organizations and inquiring, “Hey, we have twenty eager teenagers who’d like to help for a few days,” and asking questions such as “What tools do we need to bring?”
One of the reasons this project worked so seamlessly was that, in Mr. Jacobs’ words, “There was a lot of enthusiasm for it following Sandy, everyone wanted to get involved.” If current student’s show this level of interest again about any social, environmental, or political justice issue, Beacon leadership would do their best to replicate such a memorable week. Simply put, Mr. Jacobs said, “That would be fantastic, I would love it.”
Every teen will walk away with a uniquely meaningful experience; some students will continue to work alongside their selected non-profit for years to come while others will end their last shift with heavy hearts.
“There are a lot of things you learn through community service experiences that aren’t really classroom topics and we’re eager for you guys to have those experiences,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Go out and be more independent. Assume responsibilities.”