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Senior Projects a Win-Win
For Students, Community

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Troubled by the lack of direction shown by Petal High School seniors, staff members at the Mississippi school decided to give them an experience that might jump-start their careers -- a senior project. Side by side with professional mentors, these students create works of art, build playgrounds, and often surpass the number of hours required for the assignment. The surprising outcome that continues to impress school staff is the number of students who, when given the choice, elect not only to further their own interests but to freely give back to the community. Included: See why the senior project isn't simply a showcase for the high-achieving.

"The senior project, without question, has revitalized the senior year at Petal High School," Lisa Camp told Education World. "It is the best educational initiative in which I've ever been involved, and I believe it has the potential to change the traditional high school into a place where students are actively, independently engaged in setting and reaching academic and professional goals."

The senior project program the Mississippi high school was initiated as a means of giving students more focus as they prepare for graduation and future careers. Because they create a written proposal, obtain mentor consent forms, and present their project concept to an advisory board for approval, students may tailor the project to their specific needs and interests. By choice, many of the projects relate to school or community service. Professionals from the community serve as mentors for the students.

Senior Chris W. researched and wrote about Aaron Douglas, a Harlem Renaissance painter, and created a wood carving of Douglas's work "Noah's Ark" (right) with the help of Si Thompson, a mentor, history teacher, and accomplished carver.
"Most students select their own mentors, but the mentors must be approved by a 15-member senior project advisory board," explained Camp, who is the coordinator of senior projects. "Occasionally, I do help students make connections with mentors who have proven helpful in the past.

Students must propose projects that will require at least 15 hours of their time, and students who want to work in conjunction with others must propose projects that will ensure that each of them devotes the required hours and significant independent effort.

Every project has four components:

  • a research paper
  • a project
  • a portfolio that documents the experience
  • a speech that describes what has been learned.
    Employees from district schools and faculty members from local universities and colleges judge the projects and speeches, and three scholarships are awarded each year to students who do outstanding work.

    "The most impressive thing to me is the significant contribution these students make to their school and community through their senior projects, Camp reported. The number of community service projects grows each year.

    Unlike other schools that sometimes require a community service component, we have left the choice of projects completely up to our students. For such a significant number of students to freely choose to complete service projects speaks highly of the seniors at Petal High School. The class of 2008 donated over 700 hours, more than $11,000, and hundreds of items to community service and charitable organizations."

    Hannah W., Laken R., and Bradley H. were among the students who worked together to organize a benefit concert featuring the band "Triple Lindy." The concert raised more than $700 for cancer research.
    A number of students do enter professions or vocations related to their projects. One Petal High School senior who researched and created a biodiesel fuel, with the help of a polymer science professor, is now pursuing a degree in Polymer Science at the University of Southern Mississippi and working as a research assistant. Camp watched as connections made through the completion of the senior project helped motivate him to become a highly devoted student of science. But it isn't just the experiences of students like him that inspire and remain with her.

    "My favorite moments from senior projects involve the average kids, the ones who rarely give their best efforts in the classroom. Students like this, who might never get a moment of glory on a ball field or a stage, quite often take tremendous pride in their completed projects," shared Camp.

    Those students also often use a variety of vocational skills such as carpentry, welding, and mechanics in their senior projects, and they usually can't wait to show the results to Camp during the week when projects are displayed. They are the students whose families eagerly attend that week's open house to view the work.

    "I think my favorite thing about the senior project is that it creates a sort of level playing field on which even a customarily underachieving student can excel," added Camp. "It's great to see the pride the students take in their accomplishments."

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