Student hopes victory in Legislature means end of senior projects

Staff writerMarch 28, 2014 

Tiffany Stewart, a senior at East Valley High School in Yakima, did her senior project on ending senior projects.

GORDON KING — Yakima Herald-Republic

Tiffany Stewart is probably not the first high-school student to think it would be funny to do her senior project on getting rid of the senior project.

She is, however, the first to persuade the Legislature to go along.

It helps that Stewart’s stepfather is a member of the Legislature. In a last-minute change to a proposed update of state requirements for a diploma, Rep. David Taylor and his allies won elimination of the mandate for a culminating project.

If Gov. Jay Inslee signs Senate Bill 6552 into law next week, and if school districts decide to use their new option to eliminate the project, seniors in the class of 2015 would be the first to avoid the extra work.

“The bill goes into effect in 2015, so if everything goes right, then next year, this year’s juniors won’t have to do it,” said Stewart, a 17-year-old senior at East Valley High School near Yakima. “I’ve had the juniors and the sophomores and even some of the freshmen come up to me and give me a hug or a high five.”

Don’t celebrate yet, kids.

Districts would have to change their policies. Many are “deeply invested in it,” said Ben Rarick, executive director of the State Board of Education, while others view it “as a compliance hurdle.”

Count Puyallup School District in the “invested” category. “It is still going to be a requirement in our district until and unless that policy changes, and I don’t see that changing,” said district spokesman Brian Fox, who said the project integrates a range of important life skills.

The state board created the requirement for a culminating project in 2000 for the class of 2008 and their successors. A senior project requires students to apply their lessons to show they are the creative, problem-solving critical thinkers the state wants, Rarick said.

Opponents in the Legislature describe it as an unfunded mandate for districts.

It’s challenging for the Olympia School District to schedule time for judges to assess students’ work, district spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet said. Plus, the district loses instructional time setting aside two days in April for the projects.

Olympia hasn’t decided whether to keep it. Neither have the Tacoma or Bethel districts.

Besides taking up class time, Stewart said many students can’t afford to do the projects when they could be working, or to spend the money that some students choose to invest in a project.

Others just blow it off and do the bare minimum, she said.

“I’ve heard stories about kids frosting cupcakes, kids making quilts, just not putting a whole bunch of effort into it and jumping through the hoops they have to jump through to graduate,” Stewart said.

There are no statewide standards for projects. Each district sets its own rules.

Some require community service or job shadowing, others a research paper. A portfolio of work is a common component, as is a presentation in front of judges.

Students have organized charity auctions, produced videos and written pieces of music. Enumclaw Rep. Cathy Dahlquist’s daughter is doing her project on hot yoga. One student designed and patented a shoe.

A Vancouver School of Arts and Academics graduate, Hope St. John, built a more than 3-foot-tall plaster sculpture of blindfolded Lady Justice, missing her arms as if the statue had been damaged in looting.

It was intended to make a statement about the legal and illegal trade of antiquities, the subject of her research paper.

“We weren’t talking about antiquities in my high school, but that was something I was interested in, so it allowed me to pursue that,” said St. John, now 19 and a student at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Most of her classmates found their projects valuable, she said. That’s partly because small classes at her magnet school allowed for individual attention.

Stewart originally planned to organize a fundraising walk to benefit a multiple-sclerosis group, but ran into complications.

Brainstorming alternatives with her parents in their living room, they came up with what sounded at first like just a funny idea, writing a bill to eliminate the requirement.

Reps. Jason Overstreet of Lynden and Matt Shea of Spokane Valley, family friends and Taylor’s allies on many issues as fellow conservative-to-libertarian Republicans, agreed to mentor Stewart. She drafted a proposal for Overstreet to introduce in the Legislature.

At a hearing in January, Overstreet testified, then his star witness, Stewart. Later came a teacher — Stewart’s adviser telling lawmakers about that cupcake project.

The measure never made it to a vote in the committee. But lawmakers across the political spectrum were receptive.

Taylor said the Seattle Democrat who leads the committee, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, helped point out where their idea could fit as an amendment: in a bill requiring today’s seventh-graders to earn more credits to graduate from high school.

That bill was the subject of a flurry of last-minute negotiations between lawmakers who had not been involved in the credits debate before: some liberal House Democrats and the group of libertarians who wanted to end the project requirement.

The surprise changes that emerged caused some tensions.

Dahlquist, a Republican who had been involved on the bill but was left out of the final negotiations, was upset by what she said was “people selling their votes” for last-minute additions. She voted for the bill despite her qualms about the process.

In fact, it passed overwhelmingly.

The state board, supportive of the culminating project, bowed to the compromise bill. But “as a general principle,” Rarick said, “these sorts of things are best when they go through the process.”

They often don’t. So Stewart got a civics lesson that, ironically, might just show the worth of a good project, Santos said.

“I think the student received a really, really good firsthand experience in civics education and how government works,” Santos said.

Stewart acknowledges it did help her improve her public speaking.

“I couldn’t be prouder,” said Taylor, a consultant who lives in Moxee and raises horses. People joked his stepdaughter would probably unseat him some day.

Not likely, Stewart said. She wants to be a nurse.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826

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