Seniors prioritize academics, activities over culminating project

In the spring of 2007, nearly half of the graduating class of ‘08 signed up for the “early-track” December deadline for their senior culminating project. Today, a week before the early-track students are scheduled to present their work, only some 60 seniors are ready. The remaining 320 have postponed their projects until the June deadline.

“We had a huge number of kids who just jumped into the process with great ideas and enthusiasm. But when it came down to completing all the steps and requirements by December, things changed,” said Debora Boeck, an active parent on the culminating project committee. “And I don’t think this means they’re not on track, they’re just saying that first semester wasn’t a good time.”

Mercer Island High School seniors are ambitious students, engrossed in AP courses, after-school sports, community service and leadership opportunities. And this year, for the first time in MIHS history, they are faced with yet another responsibility: 80 hours of work on a culminating project.

The project is a new State Board of Education graduation requirement for all of Washington’s 12th graders, and the class of 2008 were the lucky guinea pigs. As is often the case with new endeavors, not everything has gone as originally planned — especially asking students to complete the graduation requirement early.

As stipulated by the State Board of Education, public high schools have the freedom to design their own project requirements and deadlines — guided, of course, by a state rubric.

“We’ve kept [the culminating project] very unstructured in requirement so we wouldn’t interfere with what individual school districts are doing,” State Board of Education member Linda W. Lamb told the Reporter earlier this year. “Each student should be able to demonstrate that they can apply learning to an area they’re interested in. Our hope is that kids will choose something that they want to pursue.”

In this aspect, Mercer Island has succeeded. Many seniors are thrilled with their projects, with topics ranging from climbing Mt. Rainier to organizing a Halloween trick-or-treat fundraiser for UNICEF. Yet these endeavors take time, a luxury that most seniors don’t have.

“I’m taking five AP classes, so I didn’t have the time to put 80 hours into my project by December,” said MIHS senior Jenna Somers, one of many early-track students who asked for an extension. “The only kids I know who are done are the ones who did [their projects] over the summer. Most are really stressed about it. They’ve kind of started but not really.”

According to MIHS guidelines, students must devote at least 80 hours to the project — recorded in an online log set up by teachers — compile a research journal, write a personal essay on their experience and present a portfolio to the culminating project committee. All of this on top of applying to colleges, completing a hefty academic schedule and, not to mention, enjoying the last year of their high school lives.

Boeck, who has a senior daughter at MIHS, said the committee will re-evaluate the early-start deadline for future classes when it meets to discuss the project this spring. Most likely, she added, the December deadline will be dropped.

Early-track students are not penalized for postponing their culminating project, as long as they complete the requirements by June. And Boeck has faith that MIHS seniors will all complete their work on time, even those who’ve backed out of the December deadline.

“In retrospect, the majority of the kids have postponed the project,” she said. “Actually, it’s a really good reflection of our kids making some good decisions — prioritizing.”

Social studies teacher Mike Radow, who continues to spearhead the culminating project, shares Boeck’s faith in Islander students.

At a School Board meeting earlier this fall, Radow said that despite the strenuous workload and time commitment, the majority of MIHS seniors are doing an excellent job on their projects. The experience, he added, has enriched the senior curriculum, and is rewarding for both teachers and students involved.

On Jan. 11, approximately 60 students will present their culminating projects before classmates and faculty. The 10-minute presentations (shortened from the original 20-minute requirement) will be held simultaneously throughout the school, each student speaking before to his or her Bridges class. Two teachers from the culminating project committee will grade each of the randomly divided student groups.

Presentation day alone is a challenge within itself, Boeck said.

“Organizing the presentations, the media needed — projectors and power points — is a huge undertaking,” she said, adding that this was one more reason to drop the early-track deadline. “To go through that twice ... well, getting this all done in one shot, makes a lot of sense.”

But for now, students and teachers have no choice but to prepare their material for Jan. 11. Whether or not next week’s presentations go smoothly, they will serve as an example for June’s group.

“The adults are learning and the kids are learning,” Boeck said.

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