Whatcom school districts see fate of senior projects differently

As a sophomore, Tim Lann completed the kind of senior culminating project educators dreamed of when it was made a state requirement six years ago.

As a junior, he found out he never had to do one at all.

With the state deciding in the spring of 2014 to no longer mandate that high school seniors complete a culminating project beginning this school year, districts that spent time and money to follow the state’s requirement are left to decide on their own if the extra work is worthwhile. So far, after districts asked students, teachers and parents for their opinion, there is little consensus among administrators in Whatcom County on how to approach the issue going forward.

Lann, now a senior at Squalicum High School, founded a nonprofit organization called The Timothy Lann Project: Brothers Against Poverty. It has since partnered with Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County to build a house for a family in need.

But senior project success stories in Bellingham could become rare. Lann also was part of a student advisory committee that recommended the Bellingham School District eliminate projects.

It is the only district in Whatcom County to eliminate the projects for students graduating in 2015. While every other district is keeping some kind of project, many are changing the guidelines.

“Senior year, as I’m finding, is pretty brutal,” Lann said. “It would have been virtually impossible to try and start (my senior project) at this point.”

Bellingham Superintendent Greg Baker said many students he consulted noted positive aspects of senior projects — such as community service and the development of research and presentation skills. But he said, “overwhelmingly the recommendation was to eliminate it as a requirement.”

“For some students it was great, but for many students it was a burden,” Baker said.

The state intended culminating projects to allow students to demonstrate their reading and writing abilities, while also encouraging them to explore topics that interest them and apply their knowledge to real-life situations in their community, according to the state superintendent’s website.

Though there were no statewide requirements for the project, the work usually centered around one topic and included a research paper, community service, a portfolio and a presentation.

Bellingham High School Principal Jeff Vaughn said they were still working on keeping the good parts of the project even though it’s no longer required. Several classes are asking students to complete research papers and presentations, but they don’t currently have any community service requirements in place. He said they will miss the community panel presentations that students made because they were a good way to connect to the community.

Yet he agreed with the district’s decision to no longer require the projects.

“It was a non-funded state requirement that we had to absorb in our budgets,” Vaughn wrote in an email. “We struggled to manage the work but we also saw the amazing results for many students.”

Glimpses of these results have been seen not just in Bellingham School District, but across the county. Nooksack Valley High School senior Mariah Perry, 17, focused her project on human sex trafficking after visiting Liberia her sophomore year and hearing stories first hand from rescued victims. At her high school, the project is still required.

“I wanted to do something I was passionate about and help me toward a career,” Perry said.

Perry is also finishing her project early. Unlike most seniors, she will present it in December instead of spring. She hopes this will help her alleviate stress around the time she is preparing for Advanced Placement tests.

Nooksack Valley School District had seniors do culminating projects before the state mandated them. High school Principal Matt Galley said students used to transfer to other schools that didn’t require the project before 2008. He doesn’t think students will transfer to other schools to avoid the project now, partly because many other districts are keeping the requirement, and partly because they try to integrate the process into the classroom as early as the students’ junior year.

It’s almost unheard of for a student not to graduate because they failed their senior project at Nooksack Valley, Galley said. He said this is because of the preparation the school requires before the presentation is made. By the time students present, they know they’re going to pass, he said.

“We feel like it’s an authentic piece of work that kids do,” Galley said. “It embodies all of the components that public education stands for, which is motivating activities that are meaningful to the students.”

New guidelines confuse students

Ferndale, Mount Baker and Meridian school districts are also keeping senior projects but are tweaking the requirements.

Some district superintendents, like Tom Churchill from Meridian School District, said it’s important for students to deliver a professional presentation to an adult audience and have a post-high school plan, a stance echoed by Mount Baker Superintendent Charles Burleigh.

Ferndale School District has a similar view as Mount Baker and Meridian. Officials changed the project for 2014-15 seniors to put more emphasis on post-high school plans. Students can choose a project related to a future job, community service or college. Ferndale High School Principal Aaron Kombol said administrators asked last year’s seniors if they found value in the project, and they unanimously said yes and recommended to continue it in future years.

However, some seniors at Ferndale High School have questioned the new guidelines that push for a project relating to plans after high school.

“I think a lot of kids are wishing they had the old guidelines,” said senior Cody Colon.

Colon said it was hard for him to find a project that would fit the guidelines, and he would like to see the school do away with them.

The school also eased up on the amount of work that has to be done and as an example has cut the required presentation time. But some students say this just makes it easier to blow it off.

“You can get it done in a weekend, really,” said senior Dalton Neer.

One reason students in Bellingham recommended the change was because they noticed a lack of enthusiasm no matter what the guidelines were.

Bellingham High senior David Hammes, who like Lann was on a student advisory committee that recommended the district eliminate senior projects, said he thought the original intent of the project was lost because the required community service hours kept shrinking, and students still didn’t complete them.

”Many seniors when I was a junior, that I talked to, just did simple community service projects to graduate,” Hammes said. “Students were preparing the bare minimum of the hours and maybe lying on their counts just to do it.”

State gives districts control

Students not taking the project seriously was an issue in the rest of the state as well.

State Rep. Jason Overstreet, R-Lynden, proposed the bill to prohibit the state Board of Education from requiring students to complete a project for graduation. The bill was brought to him by a Yakima East Valley High School student, Tiffany Stewart, who drafted the legislation as her senior project.

Stewart testified to the House Education Committee earlier this year and said many students did not have time to do quality work and did the bare minimum to pass. The Legislature then ended the senior project requirement by adding an amendment inside another education bill.

Overstreet said there were certain segments of the student population that treated the project seriously, and others that put less time into it. He said when the state Legislature ended the requirement, he was overloaded with emails from pleased administrators. He fully supports leaving decisions on senior projects to individual districts.

“What I was surprised to see, quite frankly, was the support that the bill received from, obviously, students, but more importantly, teachers and administrators,” Overstreet said.

Neither Blaine nor Lynden school district will make any changes to the requirements from last year, opting instead to continue doing what they say has worked for students, and keeping an eye on issues that could arise.

Overstreet said districts were bound to see the issue differently but thought the decision should have been left to them in the first place.

“This is a classic example of true local control,” Overstreet said.