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Students make big ideas reality with senior projects

| Sunday, May 7, 2006

The innovative spirit lives at Greater Latrobe High School, thanks in no small measure to a big-idea senior project.

Megan and Jessica Lordi, 17-year-old twins, came up with a plan to convert the small change left on retail-store gift cards into donations for cancer victims.

The girls spent four years on their project, part of a senior graduation requirement.

"We had the idea, and then we worked closely with the American Cancer Society," Jessica said.

The project was one of scores developed this school year by Latrobe seniors. The man who oversees the projects, Assistant Principal Steve LoCascio, said students are introduced to the project concept in ninth grade, and work the remainder of their high school career with an assigned faculty adviser and a teacher-adviser of their own choice.

"For some kids, it's really a big deal," LoCascio said. "Others don't take it to that level."

"We take (the projects) pretty seriously," Assistant Principal Gennaro Piraino said. "If you don't complete the project, you don't graduate."

At Ligonier Valley High School, seniors are expected to "shadow" a worker who does a job they might like to do one day.

While most students tag along with someone local -- an accountant, an attorney, a machine shop operator -- Matt Pribisco traveled to Nashville to take in the life of a music producer. The three-day journey was arranged by a fellow senior and aspiring pop-rock gospel singer Noel McLeary.

The trip convinced Pribisco that a career as a sound engineer was possible. Pribisco said he also was looking at becoming a music producer later on.

"Seeing a real (recording) studio and watching a real producer at work was great," Pribisco said.

The 18-year-old plans to major in music recording technology in college.

He knows that to get work he'll probably have to move to Nashville, New York City or, if he becomes interested in movie sound, Los Angeles.

He said he's ready to go anywhere.

Ligonier Valley Principal Ronald Baldonieri said the "shadowing" project fits the school's goal of preparing students for life after high school by giving them a glimpse of real-world professions they may have thought about but only from afar.

"They do a research paper and make a presentation to the English class," Baldonieri said.

Though senior projects are a state mandate, school officials say Harrisburg has left the details up to the school districts. Some districts -- including Ligonier Valley -- give students grades, A to F, while other districts -- such as Greater Latrobe -- start with an "exemplary" mark and work their way down.

The Lordi twins said their project taught them the value of perseverance. The girls experienced a series of failures the first few years, as one company after another turned down their idea with polite form letters.

In the process, the twins said they learned the importance of the bottom line for businesses. To make the idea financially palatable, they hit on the notion of transferring the small amount of change left on some gift cards -- 50 cents or less -- to new, fully funded cards that would be given out to cancer patients.

Businesses, they said, would not lose a single dime of profit in the transaction.

The twins finally met with a staff person at the American Cancer Society in Pittsburgh, who helped move the process along.

Senior projects come in all shapes and sizes. Emily Matthews, an 18-year-old Latrobe senior, conducted research on the Civil War, not exactly a new idea but for Matthews one that was filled with discoveries. A musician, Matthews examined Civil War-era music, including the gospel favorite, "Amazing Grace," and the haunting "Taps."

The origins of both numbers are shrouded in mystery and myth, Matthews found.

As part of an oral presentation to her advisers, she arranged her own versions of "Taps" and "Amazing Grace" using a computer. She then played live -- "Amazing Grace" on the French horn and "Taps" on the trumpet.

Two Latrobe seniors took matters into their own hands for their senior project.

Anna Cuthrell and Mallory Sassos thought they could make a big difference by redecorating a classroom set aside in the high school for preschoolers.

"We thought the room was drab and boring," Anna said. "Preschoolers needed something more exciting."

The result was 70-plus hours of labor just applying paint to walls. Additional hours were devoted to raising money for the project -- $600 bought the paint plus new toys for the youngsters -- and lobbying the school administration for the changes in the first place.

"It took five months to get approval," Anna said. "Paint was an issue."

School officials didn't want a color that was too colorful, Anna reported. The students and the administration compromised. The result, she said, was something she called "muted bright."

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