Senior Projects: Last hurdle to graduation
Jose Rodriguez puts the finishing touches on a smock as one of his props for his project that was teaching art classes at the Boys& Girls clubs.
Alexandra Cortez used to be seriously distrustful of cops. After 20 hours shadowing a local police officer and an in-depth research paper on the legitimate factors behind the use of force by police, Cortez now wants to be one. She will study criminal justice this fall at Napa College with the goal of becoming a homicide detective.
Sonoma Valley High School’s senior projects have been a much-loved, criticized and debated tradition for 15 years and a graduation requirement since 2000. Each time the school budget must be cut, the idea of doing away with the projects is broached, but last week 270 seniors spread among 67 classrooms at the high school to present in front of 300 volunteer judges from the community, along with dozens of teachers. Some notable senior projects from year’s past included the boy who built a bamboo bicycle; the student who wrote a full-length fantasy novel; the student who passed her EMT certification and volunteered at the Haight Ashbury medical clinic; and the boy who helped bring tennis coaching to San Quentin State Prison and played matches against inmates in the prison yard.
The State of Hawaii recently used Sonoma’s model in developing its own graduation requirement. Aspects are continuously modified and adjusted to make it a more effective exercise for the students.
This year, all judging took place on a single night. All seniors are now assigned a support teacher and a research component was added, which Senior Project Coordinator Janet Hansen said has improved the quality of the papers.
The high school does everything it can to help the seniors successfully complete the project’s portfolio, poster, oral presentation and research paper.
Students have all year and ample class time, though many admit putting it off until the last minute. Students who miss any of the due dates risk not graduating with their class. Not only are students judged on their knowledge of their topic, their organization and their style, they are also judged on whether their project stretched their learning and resulted in a measure of self-discovery.
Principal Dino Battaglini is pleased with the impact the process has on his students. “I am amazed to see the transformation in our seniors from the initial weeks when they are really nervous about choosing a topic, to their confidence the night when they do their oral presentation. They have a great feeling of accomplishment which they take with them to the next stage of their life and I think, for many, this process is one of the most memorable experiences of their high school career.”
A student whose project is running a basketball camp might do their research paper on an aspect of physical fitness. For many students, the senior project results in the longest paper they will write in their entire academic career.
For students heading on to four-year colleges, it is considered excellent preparation for what lies ahead. Holly Kyle has organized the volunteer judges for the past three years.
Before the Teacher Support Network got involved, the school had trouble securing more than one or two judges per classroom and they always wanted more. With help from Rotary and Kiwanis, plus Kyle’s contacts and word of mouth, she secured six judges in most classrooms this year. “The offers to judge poured in. That is the kind of community we live in. If the need is there, it gets filled.”
“The district is so appreciative of the outpouring of community support each year for the senior project judging,” said Superintendent Louann Carlomagno. “Hundreds of people who may have never before set foot on the high school campus show up to look at the posters and serve as our judges and I think forever feel a small bond with our students as a result.”
Hundreds of parents and high school underclassmen crowd around walls lined with senior project posters before the oral presentations begin. Wise sophomores and juniors stop by to look at portfolios and get a head start on their senior year.
What impresses many judges is the wide range of topics. Seniors agonize over their decision, since it is often the only time in their 13 years of education that they truly control what they will study.
There are some guidelines: the project cannot be passive, the student must physically do something for more than 20 hours in the spring semester, and their actions must culminate in a product of some kind.
Some categories have emerged as definite favorites among students.
This year, 10 students taught themselves an instrument. A dozen students volunteered at Pets Lifeline or worked with therapy horses. But sports activities are usually the biggest draw. More than two-dozen students (almost 10 percent of the class) taught at a sports camp or learned a new sport this year.
There are always a few really notable outliers, however. This year, senior Chloe Davis wrote a book of short stories for her project. Olivia Donald wrote and directed a musical. Frederick Anguiano created a video game. Kamryn Barker recorded an album of original music. Karly Burningham created a wine label and Brinkley Capriola created an online photography magazine. Steve Wedell restored an antique clock. Jorge Oros managed the Eighth Street airport. Isaac Garcia shadowed a chef. Clare Morris wrote and illustrated an organic cookbook.
More than 3,000 Sonoma Valley High School seniors have successfully completed a senior project and the process seems meaningful to them over the long term. Alum Lee Jasperse, Sonoma Valley High School 2010, who is now at UCLA said, “Although the specifics of my senior project don’t precisely relate to the career direction I’m heading toward now, the research and communication skills I practiced in my senior project will be relevant to whatever I end up doing.”