By Gerhard Schneibel

gerhard@reporternewspapers.net

North Springs Charter High School students regularly participate in at least two clubs or extracurricular activities — there are more than 75 student organizations on the Sandy Springs campus — and they get nine half-days each school year, the latest being March 25.

To combine those two assets, seniors Chris O’Connell and Bethany Larkin started the Connect to the Community program, which organizes two service half-days at the school each year. As co-presidents of the Student Leadership Association, O’Connell and Larkin wanted to find a way to improve attendance during half-days and provide students with an opportunity to do something good for themselves and the community.

The Junior ROTC wrote letters to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The football and wrestling teams painted the field house of the school’s newly refurbished sports complex. The cooking club baked cookies for Sandy Springs firefighters.

Other groups painted art for hospitals, collected garbage at Big Trees Forest Preserve, cleaned up the math department’s office, made blankets and sack lunches for the homeless, and touched up the Spartan mural in one of the school’s hallways.

More than 80 percent of students came to school for the March 25 half-day, which Principal Lisa Stueve said was an improvement over years past. “We’ve been consciously working on improving attendance during these half-days,” she said. “We’ve been looking at lots of creative thoughts.”

That creativity is part of the program at the charter school, which starting next school year will be open to students outside the Fulton County school system as well as outside Sandy Springs.

Stueve’s initial reaction to the idea from O’Connell and Larkin was “Wow, 4½ hours of clubs just moving about — that’s a little frightening for us adults,” she said. “But we sat down and said, ‘OK, let’s set some parameters.’ ”

Many parents volunteered to help with the service day, and companies such as Publix and Target worked with organizations like Leadership Sandy Springs to make donations and support the students’ efforts.

“We’ve put a lot of work and energy into this. We kind of wanted to show that learning doesn’t just have to happen in the classroom,” Larkin said. “This is one way to kind of show people you can do community service, but it can also be fun.”

O’Connell said he expects more good things from the Connect to the Community program after this year’s senior class graduates. “We definitely made a point this year of engaging our core members to carry it on.”