04/28/08 — Trying on their futures

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Trying on their futures

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 28, 2008 1:46 PM

A state-mandated addition to high school students' "senior project" has educators and administrators a little nervous.

The controversy heated up when the Department of Public Instruction first announced the mandated component in 2006. Effective with the class of students entering ninth grade that year, the North Carolina Graduation Project features four required parts -- a research paper, a portfolio, an oral presentation and a product.

It is the product that has sent some educators scrambling.

"The product was the thing that got everybody a little bit on edge. ... That's what's got everybody a little nervous," said Stephen Clingan, principal at Spring Creek High School.

The concept of a senior project is not a new one, he said, explaining it was originated more than 20 years ago in California and has proven successful. And it is not entirely new to Wayne County, Clingan added.

"Wayne County schools have been generating them. It's the product that's the new component," he said.

Broken down, Clingan said a lot of the project falls under the schools' curriculums but also incorporates research skills, identifying topics of interest, self-awareness and then writing styles. Additionally, students will work with a mentor. But the outcome goes beyond writing a paper or making a presentation.

By adding an actual product, Clingan said, "It gives relevance as to the 'why.' ... I see a lot of relationship and relativity going into this."

From the student working at Piggly Wiggly with an eye toward working in the beef industry or in livestock who demonstrated cutting meat, explaining what each piece represented, to the California student who restored his grandfather's old car as his product, Clingan says the last piece affords students opportunities to tie things together.

"I have heard -- early results, early feedback -- that there's a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of worth," he said.

For some students, other lessons are possible.

"One student wanted to be a marine biologist ... did her presentation on barnacles and later decided she no longer wanted to be a marine biologist," he said. "So it can also allow the student to decide against pursuing a field of study later on, saving time and money in college."

Christy Shivar, an English and journalism teacher at Spring Creek High, has judged projects in other counties. She is also graduation project coordinator at her school.

"We have actually been doing senior project per se since I began teaching here with the first graduating class (in 2002)," she said. "Every single class that I have has a paper and presentation and portfolio. As far as being hard to implement, I don't think it will be."

That's because the plan is divided up incrementally during each year of high school, she explained. The process is thus broken down into manageable pieces, she added.

"Every one of those fall within the standard course of study that we're already doing."

Spring Creek, where grades 6 through 12 are housed on the same campus, lends itself to more advance preparation.

"They are preparing (students) ahead of time. Teachers are starting it early here," Ms. Shivar said.

Margo Hull, counselor at Southern Wayne High School and graduation project coordinator, has attended several trainings offered by the Department of Public Instruction on the mandates.

Her school has already held several assemblies introducing the project to ninth- and 10th-graders, she said. Likewise, parents are being informed so they can be more supportive of the students.

Ms. Hull views the shift as a possible solution to a glaring problem at the high school level.

"This is really going to address the dropout rate in Wayne County, creating that community, school and student liaison, to create strong bonds, encourage students to investigate a topic they're interested in," she said. "In addition, it gives them that pride of creating a product. And we get to bring the community in at the end and show them the success that we have had."

By allowing students to have a voice, getting to select and develop their project, the investment will pay off.

"More than anything, when they can choose something and it's something that they're interested in, it ties in what they're learning on a daily basis," Ms. Hull said.

Citing studies in other counties, she said a decrease in dropout rates is already being reported.

Clingan, too, said he envisions its potential.

"I see this as a possibility for our vocational, business departments, HOSA (health occupations program), allied health, masonry, automotive, where they're product-based," he said.

The model offers "rich opportunities" as students are given freer reign to investigate career and subject interests of their choosing, Ms. Shivar said.

Educators will likely feel some of the burden, though, saddled with yet another mandate to ensure students receive a high school diploma. Ms. Hull chooses to view it from a different angle.

"I think that the neatest thing about this project is that we're putting the responsibility on the students for the success of this project," she said.

There will always be some fear that comes with change, she said. In this case, though, the mentoring potential is great. Each teacher will likely be responsible for 8 to 10 students, she said, benefiting students as well as educators.

"When they see the results later I think they'll be very proud," she said. "I think all of this (apprehension) is going to go away. I think it's more along the lines of them just getting started and seeing the paperwork that's involved."

Other concerns will also be faced, particularly relating to exceptional children and students with disabilities.

Ms. Shivar said there are policies dealing with those, among them the "individual education plan" already in place.

Military students and those who transfer in the middle of high school are also part of an ongoing conversation, Clingan said.

"That will be addressed. Obviously every child will be given an opportunity to do a graduation project," he said.

The principal maintains a positive outlook, confident in what the graduation project will mean to tomorrow's high school student.

"It's a comfortable thing. I feel very comfortable that we have got a good handle on the product," he said. "The possibilities are endless. I think we'll be successful in implementing it.

Ms. Hull is even more passionate about the prognosis.

"Even if one senior graduates because of this, I think it's worth it because people have taken the time to say, 'I see you're interested in that.' That's what the kids don't get, sometimes at home or other places," she said. "They're being noticed and they're being seen. Those are the many things that we're going to see happening."