Learning to serve: An in-depth look at the CCVA’s graduation requirements


Sophie Rukin and Zachary Kurtz

For over two decades, until 2017, the school required all Upper Division students to fulfill a minimum of 80 hours of community service in order to graduate. Today, the school’s only service-related requirement is that every student must participate in an annual grade-wide Service Learning Day (SLD), which is created and coordinated by the Mindich Family Center for Community Values and Action (CCVA).

The current requirement is not appreciated by many in the student body, according to an anonymous poll conducted by The Record. When asked to rate their experience in SLD from a scale of one to five, nearly 60% of the 125 students who chose to respond answered either one or two, with an overall respondent average of 2.35. Slightly more than half, or 66 out of 125 students, supported returning to a 20 hour per year minimum requirement rather than continuing with the current system of Service Learning Days.

Though SLD is the only current service graduation requirement, the CCVA leads two popular extracurricular programs — the SL Team (SLT) and HM 246 — for students who wish to volunteer. 

The current system is a result of the CCVA’s shift to a model of Service Learning (SL), which intends to provide a more meaningful experience than an hourly-based Community Service model would. “A SL model teaches the students about the community itself, and how those needs are being addressed,” she said. 

To former head of the CCVA Dr. Jeremy Leeds, SL differs from community service in three ways: reciprocity and reflection; forming relationships; participation in the wider community and understanding wider contexts. 

Reciprocity and reflection is the idea that everyone involved benefits from the project and from linking service and education, Leeds said. “You’re creating what we’ve called a better life for each of us and a better world for all of us.  In community service, you are often donating something important to a program and often never see the people who are receiving it,” he said. 

SL also helps create meaningful relationships that can amount to positive impacts for all participants in the community, Leeds said. “Rather than one-shot activities where everybody leaves at the end and says ‘well who was that person,’ ‘we’re never going to see them again,’ we wanted to create relationships in long lasting ways.”

The CCVA’s website says its mission is “to promote and strengthen the connections between ethics, education, and action at Horace Mann School and in our wider communities.” They accomplish this goal by “teaching classes, engaging in community action, developing programs, and providing resources.” 

Daniel Pustilnik (10) believes that the current structure of the CCVA does not emulate Dr. Leeds’ original goal of creating a space for students to explore ethics, he said. “While I don’t think the lack of ethical discussions and teachings have necessarily created an unethical community, they would be useful in creating a community that is more mindful and aware of ethical and moral questions or dilemmas.”

Pustilnik would like there to be more schoolwide interaction with ethics, such as assemblies with people knowledgeable about the subject and discussions in humanities classes about ethical or moral decisions, he said. He thinks it would be a more accurate representation of the CCVA’s goals, since the communication of ethics is part of their mission.


The school changed the SL requirement in the 2019-2020 school year. Two years prior, the CCVA had substituted the hourly based service requirement in favor of a project-based curriculum.

 SLDs were designed as days that would help students learn about service in their community directly from community partners. A typical SLD includes a keynote speaker, the presentation of a short film, workshops, or a reflection. For example, April De Simone, an advocate for social innovation, discussed redlining at last year’s senior SLD. Students were then broken up into workshops to learn from the CCVA’s partner organizations about the work that each group does.

According to a Record article published in Volume 117, Issue 19, the change was made due to the overwhelming nature and unmanageability of the former project-based system. 

Isabella Ciriello (10) found that the SLDs she has participated in are insufficient, she said. “[SLDs are] too heavy on the discussions about service instead of the actual implementation.”

To plan the SLDs, the CCVA committee comes together approximately once a week during break to discuss potential SLD ideas and decide the best course of action for their objectives, committee member Sadie Katzenstein (10) said. “[Our school] is partnered with a bunch of people, so we usually just reach out to the people we were previously partnered with.”

The CCVA committee helps determine what community partners will speak at SLD, committee member Karolina Fic (10) said. “We have to vet the information to make sure it’s appropriate for the theme of the year.” 

Students have mixed reviews of the workshops the committee plans, Katzenstein said. “Enjoyment levels depend on the workshop,” she said. “The more interactive ones I think people enjoy more, but I think the lecture based workshops people enjoy less.”

For Goldmacher, the 10th grade SLD provided an opportunity to see all her hard work from the committee in action. “The day helped us to recruit some more team members, and I definitely know some people joined after their positive interactions with the community partners,” she said.

Theo Ziehl (10) enjoyed some aspects of the 10th grade SLD, but he thought the time spent doing actual service was too limited, as he only spent 30 to 45 minutes talking to the seniors, he said. “We spent the rest of our time receiving lectures about issues that didn’t even seem to be connected to what seniors were talking about, and so I really felt a disconnect there that I thought could be improved.” 

Nitika Subramanian (11) said there are more effective and beneficial ways for the school to teach service. “[Students are] learning about community organizations, which are super important, but we’re not doing anything tangible to help them with their work,” she said. “It’s just not the most effective use of their organization’s resources.”

When organizations present to students on SLDs they are taking time out of their days to present to students who are, for the most part, not listening to them, Subramanian said. “There’s no way to really guarantee that the organization gets something back for giving up their time.”

Even if students wanted to get involved with these organizations after SLD, it is entirely up to them to create the connection, Subramanian said. “The CCVA should instead send out an email during the next week, where they say ‘this is how you can help this organization and get involved.’” According to the poll, only 11 of 125 students have become involved in a service activity because of their experience on service learning day.

The CCVA is attempting to reframe the meaning of “service,” Joyce-Bernard said. “I want to go back to [students] realizing that there’s different parts of [service]. There’s direct, indirect, advocacy, and there’s research, and all of them are important.”

Jaden Piccirillo (12) said it would be more beneficial to have hands-on community service where students go to places such as soup kitchens and community centers. “In a typical school, you’d have your community service hours which is more hands on, and more engaging.” A student can have a more personal connection with physical community service because they can choose when and where they help out, he said.

Piccirillo said the current requirement is not a large enough part of the curriculum. “[SLD] is just this one day that you check off where you don’t have class.” The school’s curriculum should revolve more around SL and the requirement should be more than just a day without classes, he said.

Similarly, Subramanian said the school should have students work on actual community service that has a direct impact on those in need. “The reason we got rid of service in the first place was because people were only doing it to meet the requirement, and did not actually want to do service,” she said. “The point of service is not for us.” The point of service is to make a change for others and not necessarily for students to feel passion about it, she said.

Emily Grant (10) finds it surprising that the CCVA’s goal is to help students think about the purpose of service, rather than actually getting them to do it, she said. “I think that the best way to learn about service is by actually doing it,” she said. “You are not making any tangible change unless you are actually involved in the service aspect of SL.”

Freddie Zises (9) does community service outside of school, which she feels has a tangible impact on the people she works with, she said. She works with a program called Friendship Circle that serves kids with special needs, many of whom are on the autism spectrum, she said. She volunteers for three hours each Sunday, which would easily fulfill an 80 hour requirement over the course of four years.

It would benefit the CCVA and their mission to put a larger emphasis on SL beyond just SLD, Coco Trentalancia (11) said. She would prefer an SL week structured similarly to Unity Week held annually at the school, she said. “A day is just not that useful and I wish that we could spread it out throughout the entire week and then focus on more individual issues throughout our community.”

During Unity Week, students and faculty run workshops to educate and make others aware of meaningful topics related to unity. Trentalancia said this model could also apply to SL and would involve the whole school community in a more wholesome way.

The purpose of the CCVA should be to bring service to the students at the school and to provide them with opportunities to give back to the wider community, Steve Yang (11) said. While SL Days are a good starting point, this goal would be more effectively accomplished by having students participate in the SLT and other in-person service activities so that every student can experience service in some capacity, he said.

Leeds shaped the current SL requirement, but when he was a student at the school in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were no requirements, he said. 

According to an article published in Volume 81, Issue 3 of The Record two years before the requirement was established, students and faculty thought service was a good idea that should be encouraged but not required, since forcing it would “detract from its moral value as well as from the good of the society.” The requirement was proposed to the Governing Council, a former iteration of the current Community Council, in 1985, but they decided it was not the right time to establish a requirement.

In 1989, the school set a 40 hour total service requirement for the Upper Division (UD), Leeds said. The only guidelines were that at least 60 percent of community service hours must be completed outside of school, he said. During the 1990s, the UD requirement was doubled to 80 hours, with 40 hours required to be fulfilled during freshmen and sophomore years and 40 total hours required during junior and senior years.

“[The requirement] was met with some people who really liked it and then it was also met with some resistance,” Ken Grouf ’89 said. He tried talking to his peers to help them understand the purpose of the requirement and its importance in their lives.

According to an article published in Volume 114, Issue 28 of The Record, many students were conflicted when the requirement changed a second time in 2017 to be project-based, since they thought it allowed students to put in very little effort while still meeting their requirement.

The hour-based requirement did not provide students with enough structure or supervision,  Leeds said. “It created situations where students did 45 minutes here and three hours there and were left with hours to do at the end,” he said. 

The Class of 2018 was the first group of students to complete these long-term projects, which ranged from volunteering at a soup kitchen to creating an impactful club at the school. “The requirement is based on completing SL projects rather than simply acquiring community service hours, the system that was previously in place,” Leeds said in an article published in Volume 114 Issue 28 of The Record. “We are looking at impact and learning rather than focusing on the amount of time a person is putting in to whatever their project is.”

At the time, the CCVA stressed that the change provided a requirement with a tangible outcome that students could look forward to and share with the school community, Zarina Iman ’18 said. “It gave me the leeway to understand what I was interested in, in terms of helping the community, and how I could best help the community.”

Lutie Brown ’18 was in the SL committee, a group of students who brainstormed this new requirement and spearheaded the transition from a community service hours-based model to a SL project-based one, she said. “I was excited by the chance to take part in crafting a new definition and standard for service that I was passionate about,” Brown said. “I was also still a bit confused about our hours requirement at the time, so I wanted to do the best I could to share information about the new requirement to my peers.” The transition was complete by the time Brown graduated. 

Brown started a club called Sunshine Mail, where students wrote letters, cards, and books for children with cancer, she said. “I first discovered Sunshine Mail in middle school, when my math teacher had encouraged us to write cards for the daughter of one of her college friends,” Brown said.

Students were excited to join their peers’ projects, Brown said. “The fact that many projects were student-created made students all the more excited to participate and engage, and it seemed to have kept them accountable in continuing their engagement and reflection over their time at HM.”


Before the CCVA’s founding in 2006, there was no SL program but instead a community service department that was smaller than the CCVA. 

Former Director of Community Service John McIvor ran the department. The school required students to complete 80 hours of community service — 40 hours during ninth and 10th grade and 40 hours during 11th and 12th grade.

The Saturday Morning Tutoring Project (now the Saturday Morning Tutoring Program, a club unaffiliated with the CCVA) also existed as an extracurricular opportunity for community service.

After nine years as the Director of Guidance and Counseling, Leeds founded the CCVA in 2006. “We didn’t have a name for it yet, but the story that I always tell is that during [Dr. Kelly’s] first weeks as Head of School, I’d put together a proposal, sat down with him and started talking to him about the proposal, and just a couple of sentences into it he said ‘that’s exactly what I was thinking too,’” Leeds said.

When Leeds founded the CCVA there was virtually no student demand for it, he said. However, Leeds noticed a consensus amongst the school that the community service requirement was insufficient. “There’s always a question with high school students and with Horace Mann students as to ‘what is the point?’ and ‘how’s this going to impact my life?’” he said.

Once students became involved in the CCVA, they learned how to have a better understanding of the benefits of helping others, and the positive impacts of service on themselves and their education, Leeds said. “Sometimes it’s not that there’s no demand for it,” he said. “It’s that people don’t necessarily know yet that something like [the CCVA] could happen, and once it’s there, people jump on it.”

Leeds worked as the Director of the CCVA until his retirement at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year. Since his retirement, the CCVA has continued to change under the leadership of Joyce-Bernard. The department currently runs grade-wide and school-wide SLD, the SLT,  HM 246, and helps guide the CCVA committee student group.

The CCVA welcomes opportunities to grow and enhance the program in meaningful ways, Joyce-Bernard said. 


The SLT and HM 246 partners with the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center (KHCC) to offer after-school electives for the kids in their after school program, Program Coordinator for the CCVA Melissa Doellman said. The students in SLT and HM 246 design the elective activities including creative writing, STEAM, leadership for teens, and yoga, she said.

The CCVA also works with Riverdale Senior Services to call seniors on Tuesdays, Doellman said. “Most of them have been at home throughout the entire pandemic, so we call and our fellows speak with those older adults and we’ve been assembling care packages for them as well.”

Liam Kisling (10) works on the creative writing branch of the SLT where students partner with the KHCC to run virtual lessons. Kisling feels that the program has a major benefit on the kids as the writing skills they teach could help for English classes in the future, he said. “I don’t think they necessarily realize they’re learning and they kind of just start to have fun.”

Trentalancia is a member of both the SLT as well as HM 246, she said. Both of the programs have a similar mission and goals, but they are run on different days of the week in part to ensure that anyone who wants to participate in SL at the school can do so, she said.

The SLT and HM 246 have had a much larger impact on Trentalancia than her grade’s SLDs throughout highschool, she said. The SLT is also a group that she stays with over an entire trimester instead of a single day on SLD, she said.

According to The Record poll, 61.6% of students participate in some form of extracurricular service work.

The CCVA makes the SLT and HM 246 seem like too heavy of a commitment which can prevent students from joining, Trentalancia said. When you are actually on the team and doing service, it does not feel like that much of a commitment and is very enjoyable, she said. By not advertising it as a large commitment, more students will join the team, she said.

The SLT is a very important part of student development as it allows students an insight into new perspectives and helps them develop empathy and learn to create places for people to be seen and accepted, Doellman said. “One of the greatest things about SLT is that it’s a reciprocal relationship. It’s not just us giving something to someone, we are getting so much back from it.”