Two seniors took the recent Fields of Faith outreach event earlier this week at Kamiakin High School in Kennewick as an opportunity to get closer to graduation next spring.
Alexia Estrada, 17, and Tabitha Wellsandt, 18, worked with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, brought in a Portland-based endurance athlete and arranged to have students from several schools speak at the event.
Faith is a big part of their lives. Alexia wants to attend Christian-based Seattle Pacific University, then pursue a job with a nonprofit or as a missionary.
“It’s actually something I’m really passionate about,” she said.
That made organizing the event a perfect fit for the girls’ culminating project — a graduation requirement that usually revolves around a student’s career interest or community service. Alexia would have helped arrange the event even if it weren’t for her project, she said.
In fact, she probably would have enjoyed that work more if it wasn’t for school.
“It’s really stressful. You have to get it done and have so many hours,” she said. “It’s more busywork than anything.”
Lawmakers removed culminating projects, also referred to as senior projects, as a state mandate last spring, and many Mid-Columbia school districts have followed suit for most if not all of their students.
But the North Franklin and Columbia school districts are keeping the requirement. A close Prosser School Board vote only recently led that district to drop the projects.
The opportunity for students to make use of skills they’ve learned and potentially help the community at the same time is too much to give up, advocates of the projects say.
“The positive impact we’ve seen out of (culminating projects) over the past decade with our kids, no one wants to see that go away,” said Columbia High School Principal Kyle Miller.
The Washington State Board of Education first made culminating projects a graduation requirement for the class of 2008 after discussions in 2000, state board officials said.
Several school districts across the state already required their students complete a similar project before graduation, said Linda Drake, the state board’s research director. Board members believed instituting it statewide would give students a hands-on way of learning leadership, planning and other important skills.
However, lawmakers embraced a bill to do away with the projects during the last session, inspired by the senior project of an East Valley High School senior in Yakima who advocated for discontinuing the projects. State lawmakers left districts the option to continue requiring them.
The Richland and Pasco school districts dropped the requirement this summer. The Kennewick School Board recently voted to discontinue the projects for all but the current senior class. Kennewick administrators feared allowing seniors to avoid the requirement would disrupt classes offered specifically to help students complete the projects. Students at Kiona-Benton City and Finley’s River View high schools also won’t have to complete a senior project.
Educators have pointed to the time required for the projects, the staffing needed to make sure students complete them, and students’ other obligations as they prepare to transition into college or the real world as reasons to drop the requirement.
Finley Superintendent Lance Hahn said it was a tough decision, as the Finley School Board likes the projects, but they take resources away from other efforts. River View students will still have to do a community service project in a civics course and the district requires a junior project.
‘It’s a blessing’
In Burbank, teachers and administrators are reluctant to abandon culminating projects.
“My staff nearly unanimously voted to keep them,” Miller said.
Some students put in minimal effort, he said. But then there was the student who decided to job shadow a cosmetologist for her project, learning in the process that wasn’t the job she thought it would be. She pursued a different career.
Another student, in his first two years at Columbia High School, was difficult to approach and extremely shy, Miller said.
“You’d say ‘hi’ to him in the hallway and he’d duck his head,” Miller said.
That student ended up rebuilding an old car for his senior project. When he gave his presentation about how he did it, it was clear the project taught him to become a public speaker, a lesson made easier by talking about something he was interested in, Miller said.
About half of Columbia High’s seniors do projects related to community service, from working with youth athletic programs to organizing fundraisers for diabetes research or the local animal shelter.
“It’s a blessing for our community,” Miller said.
‘Tested and stressed’
Prosser required senior projects before they became a state mandate. But students in the district, along with several teachers and parents, called for the requirement to be phased out now that the state has dropped it.
The new Common Core State Standards, which put more focus on writing and public speaking, and the numerous other large projects students complete during their education, make a final senior project redundant, they said.
“These students are now some of the most tested and stressed students we have had,” said Jodi Hofstad, a parent and teacher who has assessed senior projects, in a letter to the board. “We keep putting more and more on them and they are doing great, but if we have the opportunity to alleviate some stress, let’s do it. Give the seniors more time to work on scholarships, college visits and other things that come with senior year.”
Board Chairwoman Gayle Wheeler and member Warren Barmore said the projects should remain.
“The common complaint I hear is stress,” Barmore said. “From my memories of those years in college, college is a very stressful place. This is a wonderful way to prepare for that transition from high school to college.”
Other board members agreed the projects did a lot of good and that they were open to continuing them in some form, but added that this isn’t the only opportunity students have in their education to practice organization, leadership and determination.
Likewise, students said that just because they aren’t required to do something doesn’t mean they won’t have the initiative to improve themselves and their communities.
“Many schools who don’t have (senior projects) still produce quality students,” said Marissa Reyes, Prosser High School senior and student board representative.