Graduating seniors reflect on value of senior project

Staff writerJune 7, 2014 

For some graduates, the culminating senior project is a chance to reflect on and apply what they learned in their high school years. One Puyallup senior called it “a big honor.”

For others, it steals time from tasks such as completing college and scholarship applications — and getting ready to graduate. Some say it’s a frustrating exercise in filling in the blanks. One Bonney Lake senior called it “busy work.”

Thanks to a new state law, this year’s crop of seniors is the last group required to do it. The senior project, which began with the class of 2008, will be removed as a state graduation requirement for public schools.

School districts have the option of retaining it. Local school boards will make the final call.

We wanted to know what the Class of 2014, fresh from their senior projects, thought about the requirement. So we put the question to this year’s 12 News Tribune All-Star graduates as their topic of discussion during a roundtable forum — a traditional part of the All-Star experience.

The discussion was led by Clifford Rowe, emeritus professor of communications at Pacific Lutheran University.

varied experiences

From the outset, it was clear that senior projects vary widely from district to district and from school to school.

The two All-Stars who attend private high schools in Tacoma said they were required to complete projects connected with specific courses, as well as put in hours of community service. But they weren’t assigned an additional culminating senior project.

Bellarmine Preparatory School, as part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, has its students study religion. Brian Ward has been part of a school committee working on a new religion curriculum.

“Central to that has been social justice and community service,” Brian said, adding that community service is required throughout a student’s four years at Bellarmine.

Alexander Moore, from Charles Wright Academy, said he completed projects and presentations connected to classes, but not one major overarching project tied to graduation.

“Last year in our English class we spent three to four months on a huge research paper,” he said. “Each year, we have a community service requirement.”

At South Sound public schools, the expectations can vary.

Sloane McGowan from Bethel High School said her senior project was not extensive.

“You put together a binder of your latest transcript and some of your best works in your classes,” she said.

Bethel students must also complete a plan for what happens after high school and write an essay about college or other post-high school plans. Each student presents the material using a multimedia platform.

Students who want extra honors at graduation can add a career research component.

Drew Wallen, from Auburn Riverside High School, had a similar experience.

“Ours wasn’t very extensive either,” Drew said. “Ten hours of community service, transcripts, letters of recommendation — generic stuff.”

At Peninsula High School, students are asked to focus inward and do some reflection at graduation time.

“You think of yourself as the culminating project,” said Ben Smith. He said students are asked to create a presentation based on how they’ve grown over four years, based on community service, leadership and character.

“You speak for 12 minutes, put together a binder with a little bit of information about yourself,” he said.

Jesse MacKinnon, who also attends school on the Peninsula at Gig Harbor High School, had yet another kind of senior project experience.

She attends Tacoma Community College full-time as a Running Start student, a state program in which students earn high school and community college credits at the same time. TCC offers a special class for Running Start seniors.

“We are required to put in 30 hours of community service in a field that’s related to what we think we would like to pursue,” Jesse said. She’s interested in a pharmacy career, so she volunteered both in a hospital surgical ward and — once she turned 18 — in a hospital pharmacy.

Adenike “Nike” (pronounced Nicky) Omomukuyo from Emerald Ridge High School said she created a portfolio of her best work. Seniors must cover three aspects of their high school life: learning, living and leading. To earn extra honors, they must do an exit interview or a presentation.

She chose to do the presentation “because I had a story to tell about my high school journey.”

“I’ve gone through a lot in my high school, and I’ve grown a lot through it,” Nike said. “It is just a big honor to be able to speak on that and to share that with the community.”

Paulina Davidson of Rogers High School created a presentation for community members that she said resembled what Nike completed at Emerald Ridge. Both schools are part of the Puyallup School District.

For her honors work, Paulina added two musical performances, on French horn and piano.

“Having community members instead of people at the school grade (the project) gives a different vantage point,” Paulina said.

Several All-Stars said their presentations were also judged by people outside their schools.

At Wilson High School in Tacoma, Felicia Gorun assembled her best high school work that shows how she grew over time. She also wrote a paper of introduction. Its purpose is to demonstrate “who we are, and our plan after high school.”

Finally, she completed 90 hours of community service.

Cheyenne Peltier, from Bonney Lake High School, completed 15 hours of community service, wrote two research essays and assembled eight examples of her best work.

But she felt like some parts of her culminating project had little value.

“It was just busy work,” Cheyenne said.

Conrad Backstrom’s senior project at Stadium High School was mentoring and reading to students at nearby Lowell Elementary School in Tacoma. He started the project as a freshman.

“I liked it very much,” Conrad said. “I’m getting better at mentoring the students at Lowell.”

At Lakes High School in Lakewood, Quenessa Long’s senior project was a mix of elements. Each year of high school, students were required to complete parts of their culminating project. It included two separate job shadow experiences, 40 hours of community service, a series of research papers and assembling examples of her high school work.

“Our portfolio is like this big,” Quenessa said, holding her hands wide to indicate a fat file. “It has all your achievements, your best work.”

value or not?

Is there value in senior projects? The All-Stars had mixed reviews.

Sloane called the idea of a culminating project “amazing.” But she said expectations at her school were low.

“You can make it what you want,” she said.

“If you have been an active person, it will be easier to put a more impressive presentation together,” said Ben.

Quenessa said she found some requirements repetitive. She had to complete a portfolio, a paper and a presentation. She found herself struggling to make each piece unique.

Cheyenne said she found it monotonous to complete the required annual worksheets on career and academic goals. She wishes the yearly goal-setting activities had been more meaningful.

“You are not writing for yourself, you’re filling in the blanks they produce for you,” she said.

Felicia found the senior project worthwhile.

“There are some students who don’t know what they are going to do next,” she said. “It makes you think what your future is about. It gives you an idea of how you will live life after high school.”

Added Drew: “It’s a chance to present to your parents and your teachers — to be proud of what you did. You can look back on all the stuff you’ve accomplished, and share it with the people who are important to you.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635

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