5 years, 80,000 volunteer hours later

Port High program started in 2014 targeting apathy by offering a powerful incentive for students to become engaged in and out of school has become an institution in community

PORT WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL graduate Caitlyn Verfuerth, a professional wheelchair tennis player and three-time Paralympian, spoke to more than 600 students in the school’s gym on Sept. 4 to kick off the sixth year of Port Pride. The program is intended to combat teenage apathy by requiring students to perform 15 hours of community service and meet other expectations every semester in exchange for an exam exemption. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Started five years ago as an experimental approach to combating apathy among teenagers, Port Washington High School’s Port Pride program has come a long way toward establishing itself as an institution in the school as well as the community.

Just consider the numbers.

Earlier this month, more than 600 Port High students attended an evening assembly to kick off the sixth year of the program. The event was not mandatory unless students wanted to be part of the program that requires them to log 15 hours of community service every semester.

“That’s two-thirds of our students, the most we’ve ever had,” Principal Eric Burke said. 

And just three weeks into the school year, more than 40 community groups have registered events with the school in the hope students will donate their time and talents to further causes that benefit the community. 

But perhaps most telling is the fact that Port High students have logged more than 80,000 volunteer hours, contributing to the community by helping with everything from major fundraisers to snow shoveling for elderly neighbors, since Port Pride began.

“This was a total experiment,” Burke said. “It was a brainstorm about how to get our kids involved in our community, about how to get them to care about our community.

“I had no idea it would turn out like this.” 

The emphasis on volunteerism has made  Port Pride part of the community, but there’s more to the program.

In addition to fulfilling the community service requirement, students involved in Port Pride cannot use drugs, alcohol, tobacco or electronic smoking devices. They  must participate in at least one extracurricular activity, sport or club, pass all their classes and not have disciplinary problems.

So what’s in it for students? Those who meet all the requirements can exempt one final exam a semester.

“The power of the exam exemption has turned out to be huge,” Burke said. 

For those who say the school is rewarding students for doing what they should without promise of reward, Burke said if it takes an exam exemption to motivate them, it’s worth it.

“We have kids involved in things outside of their classes and school and in their community, and research shows that kids who are involved do better in school,” he said.

“And now community groups have grown to rely on our students.”

One of those groups is the Friends of Possibility Playground, which next week will begin their $250,000 rebuild of the playground in Port Washington’s Upper Lake Park that is designed to be accessible to children of all abilities. 

“The kids need volunteer hours, but I think working on a project like this also gives them a sense of giving back to their community and participating in something that makes a difference,” Friends of Possibility Playground member Melissa Niemeyer said.

About 20 Port High students have registered to help with the project, and Niemeyer said she expects that number to grow.

Port Pride is also intended to inspire students, so the keynote speaker for the Sept. 4 kickoff assembly was 2003 Port High graduate Kaitlyn Verfuerth, a professional wheelchair tennis player and three-time Paralympian.

Verfuerth, who lost the use of her legs in an automobile accident when she was a child, is working to qualify for her fourth Paralympics in the paracanoe event, Burke said. 

“I think her message really hit home with students,” he said. “She talked about what has happened in her life with her accident and how she dealt with setbacks. 

“She talked about the importance of taking advantage of opportunities and having a positive perspective.”

Community groups that need volunteer help should contact Burke by calling the high school at 268-5500 or emailing him at  Eric.Burke@pwssd.k12.wi.us.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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