By JAMES EVANS
Rutherford County Schools
Central Magnet School senior Will Starling has already completed more than 150 community service hours this year.
That nearly doubles what he’s done most other years while attending the school.
“This year I’ve done about 160, but every year I’ve maybe gotten 80 to 100 hours.”
He’s earned his hours through a variety of activities, including audio-visual work and playing guitar at local churches, serving at events for his father’s mental health organization in Nashville, and tutoring other students in Spanish.
Rachel Oppmann, a sophomore at Central, has completed more than 100 service hours, mostly through her work with the local Boy Scouts, where Oppmann is pursuing her Eagle Scout rank.
“They recently opened it up to girls, so I joined the first girl troop that I could, and we’ve been doing a lot of service projects and like clean-up crews,” Oppmann said. “I’ve run a couple events for a lodge we have and it’s all volunteer-based.”
It’s not uncommon at Central for students to boast an impressive number of service hours. The school requires 25 hours each year of high school students and 10 for those in middle school, but students oftentimes far surpass those requirements because of the school’s culture of giving back to the community.
So it should come as no surprise that Central Magnet School has been honored with an Award of Excellence by Volunteer Tennessee for the sixth consecutive year.
Only 10 schools in Tennessee earned the honor this year from the organization, which is a 25-member bipartisan board appointed by the governor to oversee AmeriCorps and service-learning programs.
Last year, the school had a total of 30,000-35,000 service hours completed by students, said Allen Nichols, the college and advisory coordinator.
To understand the significance of that figure, it’s helpful to know that Central is made up of 800 high school students and 450 middle school students.
“One of the things that I have been most impressed with really has come in the COVID era,” Nichols said, “the two years that we have gone through and how our students have been so creative to find ways (to earn their hours).”
Examples range from students working to make masks for community members who needed them, helping get groceries for those who couldn’t go to the store safely, or working with the American Red Cross to help with online GIS mapping in other countries.
“It’s such a wide range,” Principal Dr. John Ash said, “and I think that’s what most people don’t understand. There’s so many things you can do.”
The school has had students serve in local homeless shelters, create care packages for soldiers, and volunteer to mow the lawns of disabled veterans, Ash said.
“We feel like it’s important that the kids learn about giving back,” Ash said, explaining why community service has been baked into the culture at Central. “They are blessed in many ways, and we want to ensure they return that.”
He added: “A lot of them develop causes that carry them through life. We have kids that when they come back and talk to us, some of the community service they did here, they are still volunteering for those organizations.”
To qualify for the Volunteer Tennessee Award, the organization also requires to show what the school does as a whole to promote volunteering.
Clubs and athletic teams have tackled projects too, Nichols said, such as the basketball teams serving at Special Olympics and the cross country team working at Feed America First.
“Those hours don’t count towards their individual hours, but it goes to show that our school goes above and beyond,” Nichols explained.
Students also complete additional hours for clubs, such as Beta, which both Starling and Oppmann are members.
Of course, the community service hours also benefit students when they are applying for colleges.
“And they like quality over quantity,” Nichols said. “So it’s not just about the raw number of hours. They want to see that the student has done quality community service and a lot of time that is connected to a cause that relates to their field of study.”
In the past, students have earned full rides to schools, not only because of their academic achievements but also because of their leadership roles in charities, Ash said.
“It really does help when they apply for a highly selective school or for scholarships,” Ash added.
Starling and Oppmann say their service experiences have affected what they plan to do after high school. Because of his work with video at local churches, Starling hopes to take some visual-arts classes and pursue a career that requires teamwork, he said.
Oppmann plans to focus on engineering as a career but wants to incorporate environmental science.
Ash, Nichols and others at Central hope the experiences have made community service a permanent part of students’ lives.
“Hopefully it’s an atmosphere of giving back,” Ash said. “Hopefully it’s not something to them that’s special — it’s something they want to do and it’s normal.“