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SVHS seniors get a pass on Senior Project

Sonoma Valley High School instituted its “Senior Project” in 1997, requiring students to take a year-long deep dive into a topic of their choice while being mentored by an adult volunteer. The project involved a rigorous series of performance metrics, culminating in a presentation to a panel of community judges in the spring.

By 2000, Senior Project had been added to the school’s graduation requirements. Students could not graduate without successfully completing one.

But last February, the board of trustees agreed to take a fresh look at the project’s efficacy, concerned that its timing and scope might be more of a hindrance than a help for graduating seniors. By March, COVID-19 had derailed Senior Project for the class of 2020 and, soon after, put the kibosh on the tradition for the class of 2021.

Over its long history, SVHS senior projects ranged across a spectrum of interests and disciplines. While maintaining their regular studies and various other commitments, students wrote fledgling short story collections, engaged in social service, staged home run derbies, and dug into the environmental science of bats.

'BRING TO LIGHT THE DARK THINGS': Anna DeSmet, chose political cartooning as her senior project as a first-step toward a career in the arts. (Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)
'BRING TO LIGHT THE DARK THINGS': Anna DeSmet, chose political cartooning as her senior project as a first-step toward a career in the arts. (Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

With deadlines for the project’s formal research paper, portfolio, digital poster and oral presentation calendared from September through May, students were required to spend a considerable chunk of their senior year on the project, in addition to managing the pressures of college applications, SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement (AP) course testing, and all the other academic coursework required to graduate.

“My main objection to senior project was its timing,” said Alice Horowitz, who lobbied for changes to the graduation requirement when her children attended SVHS. “You had to start in the fall of senior year, which is exactly when kids are supposedly researching colleges, visiting institutions, preparing for SATs and ACTs, taking those tests, and applying to colleges, so Senior Project just seemed like it was counterproductive to that process.”

Bailey Severson, who graduated from SVHS in 2016, agreed. “My project was on the importance of women’s education in developing countries,” she said. The summer before her senior year, Severson traveled to a girls’ school in Kenya, then returned home to organize a series of fundraisers for them. “The valuable experience was going to Kenya and I was glad that I could donate money, but the actual Senior Project was a lot of busywork that took away from focusing on classes.”

And yet, sustaining focused attention on a disciplined intellectual pursuit is, for some students, a kind of crash course in the requirements of adulthood. The sense of accomplishment that comes from those efforts can linger for years after the project’s completion.

‘It makes me a little sad that kids won’t work on a project and do something special by themselves. It takes you out of your comfort zone. Where else will students get that experience? –Eden Scheiblich, class of 2019

For her senior project in 2019, Eden Scheiblich painted a 14-foot mural on the east wall of the high school’s “K” building, and revisiting her accomplishment always delivers a little jolt of joy. “It honestly shocks me every time I see it,” Scheiblich said. “I always forget that it’s there. It’s always nerve-racking to have such a big piece of art with your name on it for everyone to see, but I do feel proud. It feels good to see something that you — and only you — created.”

Scheiblich said she didn’t know much about street murals when she started her project, and enjoyed the process of gaining that knowledge. “I did a lot of research on Bansky and other street artists,” she said.

And despite sharing the near-universal dread of public speaking, Scheiblich appreciated the challenge of the oral presentation. “I practiced a lot for the presentation,” she said. “I really wanted to have it down. I was the last person to go, and super nervous, but the feedback from the judges made me feel really confident.”

Marge Thomas, left, checked-in with other community members to judge the Sonoma Valley High School students’ oral presentations of their senior projects. (Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)
Marge Thomas, left, checked-in with other community members to judge the Sonoma Valley High School students’ oral presentations of their senior projects. (Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

Scheiblich acknowledged that the project’s process was rigorous, and admits it triggered a bit of burnout. “I was working on my AP Art portfolio, too, so it was a lot of big projects at once. I kind of lost motivation and interest, and stayed away from doing art for a while after that,” she said.

Faced with the uncertainties of COVID last May, SVHS administrators sent the following notice to the students and families of the class of 2021: “Senior Project will be waived for the 2020-2021 school year. The Senior Project requirement will not be in place for graduation for the Class of 2021 due to the current shelter in place and uncertainty how school will look in the fall due to COVID-19. Sonoma Valley High School staff will spend the 2020-2021 school year evaluating Senior Project and determining next steps. Staff will bring a draft proposal regarding the 2021-2022 Senior Project to the Board in February 2021.”

And so, for the time being at least, Senior Project is over at SVHS. Project coordinator Bryan Kelly has been reassigned, and this year’s graduating class gets a pass.

Senior Kylie Hopp is alright with that. “I am absolutely relieved,” she said. “It was so unnecessary and added way more stress than we needed. Especially for kids that are taking APs and applying to a lot of colleges.”

But Scheiblich — with her high school life now in the rear view — has mixed feelings about the possible end of the SVHS Senior Project tradition. “It makes me a little sad that kids won’t work on a project and do something special by themselves,” she said. “It takes you out of your comfort zone. Where else will students get that experience?”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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