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Next year’s grads are pioneers for culminating project

What does Web design, rock climbing and civil rights have in common? Next to nothing, and that’s exactly the point.

Diversity seems to be the unifying theme behind the culminating project, a new state-wide graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2008. With projects ranging from business ventures to triathlons, Islanders are building a 2008 kaleidoscope of experience.

“To me this project represents what education is all about. It encompasses the entire learning experience. The kids are applying what they’ve learned in a real-world kind of way,” said Deborah Boeck, a parent on the culminating project committee.

The idea behind this new graduation requirement is years old. Some districts, such as Tahoma and Lake Washington, have seen thousands of culminating projects pass through their schools. The project’s success is half the reason the State Board of Education turned it into a requirement.

“We saw a number of project models that helped [inspire the idea,]” said State Board of Education member Linda W. Lamb, adding that educators’ overall aim is to facilitate a broader spectrum of learning. “[Our board] has four goals. The first two are content based and the second two are more abstract. So the culminating project was designed to show how students are demonstrating the third and fourth goals — dealing with creative problem solving and applied knowledge — that you can’t test with the WASL.”

As of 2008, all Washington state seniors must complete a culminating project, approved by their school, in order to graduate. Individual high schools may design their own project rubric and decide whether to offer credit for the work.

“We’ve kept [the culminating project] very unstructured in requirement so we wouldn’t interfere with what individual school districts are doing,” Lamb said. “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.”

During the 2001-02 school year, a team of MIHS teachers gathered information about culminating projects completed at schools across the state. The best ideas were woven into a unique MIHS design, which aims to “help students recognize and meet their individual academic, creative, social and emotional needs.”

And although the project is still in its infancy, a number of students already stand by its mission.

“The culminating project has pushed me to do something that I’ve always wanted to do but never made time for,” said MIHS senior Kirsten Gradel, who reached the summit of Mount Rainier with a team last month for her project. “I’m so thankful that I had the project to motivate me. It just made me do it.”

Along with nearly half her class, Gradel opted for the early December “track-one” deadline as opposed to the “track-two” May deadline.

According to MIHS guidelines, students must devote at least 80 hours to the project (recorded in an online log), compile a research journal, write a personal essay on the experience and present their portfolio to the culminating project committee. With so much work, it’s no surprise that nearly half the class of 2008 has chosen to get a head-start.

“I’m doing the December deadline so I can get everything out of the way as early as possible,” said Morgan Flake, who’s creating a zine — a small, self-published literary magazine. “That way I can be lazy the second half of senior year,” she added with a laugh.

As with any new academic endeavor, there are questions and obstacles. In this case, the main concern seems to be how to equably assess such a diverse pool of projects.

Committee member Boeck added that consistency and equity were crucial.

“In order to ensure fairness, [grading] rubrics were developed and teachers were trained on using them,” she said. “Also, when a student submits a particular component, more than one person will look at this.”

“We’ve set up a system where four teachers are in a grading group. However, on project presentation day, because teachers will be stretched thin throughout the school, only two teachers will watch each student’s presentation,” said social studies teacher Mike Radow, a leading figure within the culminating project team.

In addition, some parents are worried that seniors already have too much on their plate — between homework, tests and extra-curricular activities — without the added stress of a culminating project. And of course a number of students share this concern.

“I know some people have had issues with the project’s layering effect, and think ‘How much more can we ask of these students?’ But I don’t think it’s an unrealistic expectation. Teachers are slowly integrating this project [into the curriculum], all the way down to the ninth grade,” Boeck said.

True, seniors aren’t thrown into the project head first. Administrators have designed a curricular path that will gradually familiarize students with the new graduation requirement. While, teachers have made a point of being available for mentoring. There’s also plenty of room for flexibilityas defined by the School Improvement Plan.

“As a committee, we will be getting feedback from teachers, students and parents, which we’ll use to make decisions about the scope of the project — whether we need two tracks, whether 80 hours is too much and that kind of thing,” Boeck said. “That’s one important reason to keep our committee in tact; so that as we go through this, there will be several sets of eyes.”

Over the next few months, the Reporter will be following three students as they complete their culminating project.

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