Class Struggle

Seniors should cap high school with projects

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, April 29, 2010

If my campaign to require senior projects in Washington area public high schools was itself a senior project, I would be getting a C-minus. My inspiration, the long-standing senior project program at Wakefield High School in Arlington County, is still in good shape. But few other schools show any interest in trying it out, despite what seem to me obvious benefits.

Private schools adopted this idea decades ago. They realized students yearned to put their personal stamps on their final year, something more substantial than senior cut day. These schools have provided the staff members and time necessary for each student to plan and execute some valuable individual enterprise: a long research paper, an internship, a musical composition, a one-act play. Many public magnet schools and academies have gone in the same direction.

The International Baccalaureate program in about two dozen Washington area public schools is a good example. To earn an IB diploma, in addition to a high school diploma, students must not only do well in six final IB exams and perform community service, but they must also write a 4,000-word paper. Students often choose topics of personal interest, such as why the United States went into Iraq or the likelihood of a comet hitting the earth.

I have yet to meet an IB student who didn't say the extended essay was his or her most rewarding high school experience.

When I asked local school districts why they aren't requiring senior projects, they said their seniors are already burdened by college applications, SAT and Advanced Placement tests and extracurricular demands. Their teachers have reached the limit of their energies with large class sizes and accountability rules. That's probably true. But I found it interesting that the few schools adopting senior projects are often those where students have more personal challenges, and fewer resources, than those in suburban schools that don't have time for this.

Wakefield High, for more than a decade the only public school in the region with senior projects, has the highest poverty rate, nearly 50 percent, in Arlington. The School Without Walls, the first D.C. regular school to require senior projects, went forward despite some parental resistance. Most of the D.C. charter schools that require senior projects, such as Maya Angelou, SEED, Thurgood Marshall and Washington Mathematics Science Technology, have largely low-income student bodies.

The senior projects my children completed (two of them at private schools, one at an innovative public school in New York) were not academic triumphs, but that is part of the point: to get deep into something that appeals to them, not their teachers or parents. One son organized with two friends a summer auto tour of Major League Baseball parks and did a paper analyzing their differences. One son interned for several weeks at a golf pro shop. My daughter built a large, wooden student newspaper rack for the main school office.

Thankfully, some schools are experimenting with elective senior projects. Each of the other three Arlington high schools encourages internships after AP and IB exams are over in May. Washington-Lee High had 76 percent participation this year. The leaders of Manassas city schools see required senior projects as a way to stimulate teaching of stronger research and presentation skills in lower grades and hope to begin them by 2011.

More teachers are nudging their schools in that direction. To them, helping seniors take a personal interest to a new level makes as much sense for public schools as it does for private ones.

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