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Turning Their Senior Year Blahs Into Bravos

To fight 'senioritis,' a district requires its students to take on graduation projects. Their choices range from Lou Gehrig's disease to hip-hop music.


While seniors at many other high schools are slumping into the apathy of "senioritis," Brandon Wicker at California High School in Whittier is tackling research about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Watching his 64-year-old grandmother battle the neurological illness, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, inspired him to take on the topic for his required graduation project. So he does not mind the extra academic work, poring over medical journals and interviewing health experts, during a phase of education that is otherwise not widely known for its rigor.

"It's a brutal disease," said the soft-spoken 18-year-old, who plans to study guitar performance next year at either Cal State Fullerton or University of the Pacific in Stockton. "Researching this topic has helped me take care of my grandmother."

To graduate, seniors in the five-campus Whittier Union High School District are required to complete a project that resembles a college thesis. The requirement began six years ago to combat senioritis, the breeze-by attitude that often kicks in after college application deadlines in the winter. Teachers used to complain about how difficult it was getting seniors to think of anything but partying and life after high school.

"By spring break, there's not much kids want to do," said Patricia Hodges, a social studies teacher at California High and the senior project coordinator there. "How do you keep them going for the rest of the year?"

Seniors must choose a topic they will research for an eight- to 10-page paper and complete a related hands-on activity to keep them involved for the whole year. By graduation, each senior delivers a speech to a panel of community and faculty members on what he or she has learned.

Wicker, for example, will give a talk at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton on how to be prepared for dealing with family members afflicted with the disease.

Last school year, three students did not graduate on time at California High because they failed to complete their projects, Hodges said. To receive a diploma, such seniors have to finish the work, plus attend summer school or take an independent study class in the fall.

State education officials say there are no reliable lists of other schools requiring such graduation projects, but they say interest is on the rise. That is especially true since a federal commission last year recommended that every American senior complete a capstone project.

"There's a general concern of the senior year being a wasted year," said former California state Sen. Gary K. Hart, who was on the commission that studied the final year of high school. Hart founded the California State University Institute for Education Reform, a policy center.

Whittier high schools model their program on a curriculum designed by Far West EDGE Inc., in Medford, Ore., which reports that it has trained about 200 schools in the state. Districts in Lodi, the Antelope Valley and San Diego are among those using it.

At California High School, Diana Maglalang, 17, gracefully twisted her wrists in circles as she described the hand movements of traditional Filipino dances--the topic of her senior project. She plans either to teach other students the steps to one of the dances from Baguio, Philippines, where her family is from, or perform one at school.

For the written report, she's been reading books on the history, music and costumes of the dances and took classes at a Filipino dance workshop.

"It's been very stressful. I've never stayed up so late working," said Maglalang, who wants to major in biology at San Diego State and become a dentist.

California High senior Mako Crawford said his project on the history of hip-hop music also is taking up a lot of his time. But he enjoys the work and the freedom he had to choose a topic that interested him. He plans to produce an album for a local musician.

"It's just that senior year we have nothing to do; that's why they make us do this," said Crawford, 17, who is awaiting word on applications to various UC and Cal State campuses, where he wants to study business, music or film.

Myron Dembo, professor of educational psychology at USC's Rossier School of Education, said senior projects are part of a growing trend toward giving students a broader understanding of the world. "It recognizes that kids can't learn everything that they need to learn in a classroom," he said.

Dembo praised Whittier Unified for including members of the wider community as evaluators and mentors for the projects. School staff ranging from administrators to custodians also participate.

When Rosa Chatterton, a receptionist at a local dentist's office, was asked to be a panel member she was a bit hesitant, but the experience helping evaluate the speeches and papers proved positive.

"You always get a feeling that there's so many kids in trouble, you don't get to see the really good kids all the time," Chatterton said. "It was good public relations for the school."

Aside from keeping students focused on school during their final year, the projects can shape their futures too. La Serna senior Aaron Carson decided he wants to study marine biology after graduation because of his project on dolphin training. He's working with a mentor from Sea World in San Diego to put together a performance in which he will swim with bottlenose dolphins.

For Matt Langan's senior project last school year at California High, he refurbished his grandfather's 1927 Model-T Ford.

"When I went into the project, I didn't know anything about cars," said Langan, 18. He's now in his first year at Universal Technical Institute in Rancho Cucamonga, and still working on his grandfather's car.

"Before the project, I was just going to go to college and take general classes," Langan said. "The project helped me realize I could go into that field."

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