Jay Mathews: Senior Projects Encourage Insight Through Sustained Effort

By Jay Mathews
Monday, April 27, 2009

When Wakefield High School first required senior projects 12 years ago, students suspected it was a plot to drain the last precious drops of joy from their teenage years. "We were pretty disgruntled," Shelby Sours, who was student government president, said at the time. "We felt abused and neglected."

This school year, Wendy Ramirez and many classmates were similarly resentful. They could not believe such a wrong-headed effort to make their lives miserable had survived so long. But after finishing her report on forensic science, Ramirez had a change of heart. Now she sees her teachers as farsighted. "It's an experience that I will never forget that will help me so much in my future," she said.

That's mushy and nice, but it doesn't explain something odd. The program's success at the Arlington County school shows senior projects are a good idea. So why are they so rare in area public schools?

Private schools have been doing this for years. My eldest child, the baseball enthusiast, analyzed 26 major league parks he visited as a graduation project for his California private school. My youngest, the humor writer and editor, studied carpentry and built an elaborate wooden news rack for her D.C. private school's main office. My middle child attended one of the few New York public schools to try senior projects. He was a golfer and gave a presentation on his internship at a local pro shop.

Such enterprises add depth to high school -- a chance for each student to explore something that intrigues him or her personally. Here are some of this year's projects at Wakefield: Suzi Bass, adopted from Colombia, created a film encouraging young pregnant women to consider that option. Milad Beygzadeh is raising $1,000 for disaster aid. Jose Lopez chronicled his learning how to be a dad and a good student. Katherine Williams described her preparations for a ballet competition and successful effort to get into Julliard.

Why should just private schools, and a few exceptional public schools such as Wakefield, be encouraging insight through sustained effort? This relates to another of my pet peeves: the reluctance of American public high schools to assign even one research paper of significant length and complexity before students graduate. The exceptions are schools (there are about two dozen in this area) that offer the International Baccalaureate diploma program. Many IB students have told me the 4,000-word extended essay they wrote in their senior year was their most memorable high school experience, but only a few private or magnet IB schools make everybody do that.

Granted, it is not easy to convince teenagers, who prefer an episodic existence, that persistent effort toward a long-term goal is good for them. Lisa Labella, senior project coordinator at Wakefield, said, "It has become something of a tradition to threaten to transfer to Washington-Lee [just three miles away] whilst waxing bitterly that Wakefield is the only high school in the world that has senior projects." But Marie Shiels-Djouadi, the former Wakefield principal who oversaw the start of the program, said she and her faculty thought the personal nature of the projects would make a difference. She was delighted to see that when the first projects were received enthusiastically by students' friends -- far more influential than parents or teachers -- young minds changed quickly.

Doris Jackson, Shiels-Djouadi's successor, said a key part of the experience is facing a panel of judges, often local experts. Teenagers suddenly confront the standards of a wider world. Up to that point, many get that opportunity only on sports teams. Through a long sports season, they are asked to plan, practice and execute to reach a challenging goal with personal importance -- just like a senior project. No wonder they remember more about football than U.S. history.

A few local public schools have adopted programs similar to Wakefield's. Students at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Prince George's County and the School Without Walls in the District are completing their year-long efforts. Other schools have moved in that direction. Projects are required in some 12th-grade courses at West Springfield and West Potomac high schools in Fairfax County. Prince William County schools mandate a maximum seven-page (about 2,000 words) research paper in 11th grade.

But many high school students still don't get to learn what Wendy Ramirez did: "When I set my mind to something and work hard to accomplish it," she said, "I will conquer it and complete it." We want our teenagers to get something out of high school, but we usually define that as good grades, high test scores and a few extracurricular activities, whatever the colleges want. We don't think they are capable of much else. Look how they complain when we ask them to take out the garbage! Maybe it's time to be imaginative and firm, as the Wakefield teachers are, and take the risk that our kids might actually enjoy wrestling with ideas and skills they see in their futures.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com

© 2009 The Washington Post Company