A glimpse of reality
Seneca Valley High School senior Marie Watson raised more than $5,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation by encouraging students to donate "couch change."
Lindsay Agel, 18, wrote a novel aimed at young cancer patients. Brooke Annibale, 17, recorded a full-length compact disc, staged her own concert and raised more than $600 for UNICEF. Jenifer Dorman, 17, and Alexandra DeLoia, 18, put on a fashion show to benefit a program that helps teenagers make healthy lifestyle choices.
These high school seniors had more than philanthropy on their minds. They also were getting a grade on their senior project.
The project -- an object of fear, loathing and inspiration -- has evolved dramatically since Pennsylvania made it a graduation requirement in 2001. Generally, the project requires a lengthy research paper and off-campus work.
In some districts, it helps students decide what careers they do -- or don't -- want to pursue. Some districts require it to include community service.
Schools across the country are requiring senior projects, although Pennsylvania is one of only five states -- the others are North Carolina, Florida, Washington and Rhode Island -- that mandate them in all districts.
Yet the projects may become more widespread. Last year, the National Governor's Association recommended senior projects for every state.
Supporters say the projects provide real-life lessons in success, failure and hard work that can't be learned in books. Critics contend the projects can require so much effort that they detract from other necessities, including applying to and raising money for college.
"Senior projects can be a pretty good way to combat senioritis," said Pat Kennedy, spokeswoman for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. "Seniors, for all kinds of reasons, often lose interest in being in school during the second half of their last year."
In Pennsylvania, districts may run senior projects as they wish. Some emphasize the academic, while others emphasize looking at careers or community service.
"Implementation varies widely -- maybe 80 percent of the programs out there are lax," said Rick Basom, managing director of the Partnership for Dynamic Learning Inc. in Greensboro, N.C., a nonprofit organization that has helped implement senior projects in more than 1,000 high schools.
In many schools, the missing education ingredient has been the senior year, Basom said.
"It is a wasted year in many schools, and senior projects are a vehicle for increasing graduation standards," he said.
A project should be something a student is interested in that may lead to the next step in their career, Basom said.
He acknowledged that the projects can be time-consuming and sometimes unpopular.
"Parents who have the most difficulty with projects are parents of advanced placement students, who are already hard-working, gifted and busy."
Mark Heinbockel, 18, a senior at Seneca Valley High School, has a project that mixes several goals. Heinbockel is bringing the "Down By the Wayside Choir" from Wayside Christian Mission in Louisville, Ky., to Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, where they will perform later this month. The logistics of the trip were more difficult than Heinbockel imagined, including many phone calls and Internet searches looking for the least expensive way to transport the choir.
"Getting transportation was really a lot of work," he said.
The project fits with Heinbockel's desire to enter social work. He spent last summer working at the Louisville mission and has done a research project about why he thinks faith-based social service organizations should receive more government funding.
Agel, one of his classmates, said her 100-page novel, a takeoff of the Grimm Brothers' "Rapunzel," is for for young girls. Agel wants to enter the medical field.
The state began requiring senior projects in 1999, two years before they became mandatory for graduation. Approaches to the projects vary widely among students and school districts.
"Schools do not have to report to the state; they do not have to do anything beyond completing them," said Stephanie Suran, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Despite grumblings from some school officials, students and parents about the requirement, many school officials say the projects help students define their interests.
Like Seneca Valley, Moon Area School District approaches its senior projects by encouraging its students to get out into the community.
"Some schools just require a research paper. We want the projects to be a stretch beyond what students would normally do at school," said Jo Elyn Sliskin, senior project coordinator at Moon Area High School, which has required the projects for a decade.
"It's something we believed in before the state required them," Sliskin said.
Annibale, a senior at Moon, said her CD and concert dovetail with her plan to attend Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and study the music business.
"I want to be in the music business, either performing or managing," she said. "I now have a better idea of what it is like."
For students such as Kimberly Cowell, 19, a senior project can define life goals.
Cowell, a Moon Area graduate now studying psychology and molecular biology at Clarion University, used her senior project to observe genetic counselors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Genetic counselors asses the risks of pregnancy, generally for women who are over 35 or might have other complications. "I got all kinds of information about what a genetic counselor does and what I need to study. I never knew that I would need to have a law class," Cowell said.
In Plum School District, senior projects are set up to help students identify what career they want to pursue by shadowing someone working in that field.
"After doing the project, some students really know what they want to do. Others may find out they are not interested in a certain type of work," said Ryan Kociela, assistant principal at the high school.
Kate Caliendo, 17, shadowed her sister, Jenny Caliendo, an accountant.
"I decided that I do not want to be an accountant," Kate said. "I think I want to open my own business instead."
In Upper St. Clair, most projects are an extension of academic work, said Mike Ghilani, assistant principal of Upper St. Clair High School.
"Lots of students use curricular items, such as participation in the science Olympics," Ghilani said. "Becoming an Eagle Scout can also be a senior project."
Senior projects in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District are incorporated into a senior social studies class called Navigating Contemporary Society.
"It's a research-based project. Students pick a topic that can be anything of interest to them," said Saundra Berringer, head of guidance Baldwin-Whitehall High School.
The projects have included subjects such as drunken driving's impact on society, abortion and why voting is important, said Lori Pavlik, an assistant principal at the high school.
The district's senior projects do not include community service, which is typical in many schools.
"Our students already do a lot of community service with no requirement for it all," Pavlik said.