Community turns out for senior project judging

When Trey Garcia’s father first laid eyes on his son’s senior project, he was speechless. While the projects can be a subject of hot debate, Gary Garcia was impressed by the crowning achievement of Trey’s senior year of high school. The seven community members who served as volunteer judges at Trey Garcia’s oral presentation last week were equally wowed.

Since 2000, every senior at Sonoma Valley High School has been required to successfully complete a senior project in order to graduate. Seniors who don’t pass don’t graduate with their class and may have to make up parts of their project in summer school.

Like many other seniors, Trey Garcia found it stressful to juggle the commitments of the project while in the midst of college applications and his normally busy schedule. In addition to being a permanent figure on the honor roll, running cross country and swimming for the Dragons, Trey Garcia worked for his father’s electrical business all four years of high school. He did juggle it all, however, and he is off to college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the fall, to study construction management.

The hardest part of the process for Trey Garcia was choosing his senior project topic last fall. “It was the first time I had completely free choice in school, so I really gave it a lot of thought,” he said. His metal and wood shop classes provided his favorite moments at the school, so he knew that he wanted to use his 20 mandatory project hours to build something with his hands. While working for his father at an electrical job for a major Bay Area advertising agency over the summer, he got the idea to do his research paper on advertising and to build his father’s business a double-sided, lighted metal sign for his senior project.

In the moments prior to his presentation time slot last week, Trey Garcia was reviewing his notes outside room J1. That final piece of the process is perhaps the most nerve-racking. In it, students describe their “learning stretch” and demonstrate what they have accomplished in a 20-minute presentation to a panel of judges. Then, they are evaluated on both content and style.

Almost 350 volunteers turned out to help with the judging last Tuesday, taking over 60 classrooms at the high school. Judges arrived early to enjoy a light meal, to look over the project posters on display in the high school pavilion and to read through the research papers in the library. Meanwhile, nervous students paced the campus hallways in fresh pressed outfits, awaiting their turn.

Gail Miller has judged for several years. She felt the quality of the five presentations she saw was higher this year. “I was in room H6, where the students were well rehearsed and articulate, the teacher was welcoming and prepared. And as a panel, we all walked away saying what a great experience we had. Although senior projects are a lot of work for the students, teachers and volunteers, I see great value and I certainly hope this program is continued.”

Some projects are more creative and inspiring than others. This year, the learning stretch for a large number of students involved trying out crossfit or learning to play the guitar, volunteering at Pet’s Lifeline or learning to surf, swim or scuba dive. More unusual topics included Nepalese language study, maintaining a chicken farm, constructing a pizza oven and creating an educational video game. One student held workshops for undocumented middle schoolers to provide guidance on the college process. Other notable topics included adult literacy, wilderness survival, water filtration in disasters, building a wooden bike and the benefits of bilingual education.

Some critics would like to see the senior project done away with all together, but most who are unhappy are primarily concerned with the overlap between senior project deadlines and other key senior year deadlines, like college applications, SAT testing and AP testing.

The senior project requirement was debated at the May school board meeting and the conversation prompted the high school administration to create a site where parents and students can post comments and suggestions (sonomavalleyhigh.org/seniorprojectcomments). Principal Kathleen Hawing announced on the page that over the next two years, the high school will undertake a self-reflective process about the requirement.

When students complain about the senior projects, they frequently mention what they perceive as inconsistencies in grading. Senior project components are scored by a variety of faculty using published rubrics. Each of the five components earns a score of below basic, basic, proficient or advanced.

As of press time, the number of students who are in danger of not passing their senior project was not available. Last week, most seniors breathed a collective sigh of relief upon the successful completion of their project. Next up are final exams and then graduation on Friday, June 6. In the meantime, keep your eye out for Trey Garcia’s sign at a local job site.