Columbia County schools' senior projects help students develop interests, skills

Jim Blaylock/Staff
Carrie McKenzie holds the saber she uses in fencing class. Carrie chose fencing as her senior project at Grovetown High School and hopes to continue the sport at Duke University.

Carrie McKenzie learned to fence as an academic pursuit.

The Grovetown High School senior took up a saber and trained to use it as part of her senior project, an academic requirement in Columbia County high schools sometimes criticized as senior-year drudgery or panned for the topics seniors pick.

"Fencing is something I probably never would have done had I not chosen it from my senior project," said the 17-year-old honors student. "I know some people will disagree with that choice, but I became very passionate about it."

As part of 12th-grade English classes, senior projects require students to write research papers, create products or conduct projects related to their topics, develop portfolios of their work, and deliver presentations and speeches to a panel of judges.

An aspect of the senior project is due every nine weeks, and it accounts for 25 percent of a student's English grade.

"Generally, the parents, those that would complain, just don't like the whole idea of the senior project," said Rose Carraway, the school system's director of high school learning. "Things range from they're expensive to getting penalized for not meeting the requirements."

Carraway said many people also have complained about certain topics, and she sometimes understands that criticism.

"We have battled that every year with teachers allowing students to choose topics that are not within the English/language arts realm, or don't have a lot of strong validity in a career choice," Carraway said. "That doesn't happen a lot, but it does happen."

Each year, Carraway said, she meets with 12th-grade English teachers, who are responsible for monitoring and grading senior projects, to discuss inappropriate senior project topics. She didn't list any specific examples.

Many topics selected by seniors this year qualify as obvious academic pursuits, such as an Evans High student studying the effects of foreign language instruction on young brains, a Lakeside senior studying the authenticity of the Bible, or another Lakeside student studying the correlation between technology and health care in rural areas.

Other topics seem less academic in nature. An Evans senior is building a medieval catapult for a study in siege warfare. Some seniors at Greenbrier High are studying glass-blowing and cake-decorating. One Greenbrier student is teaching hip hop dance to deaf students.

School board member Mike Sleeper said he has judged dozens of projects, which have included such topics as cooking, juggling and sword-making. But he said that matters less than the skills they learn while executing their projects.

"I don't mind an off-the-wall topic if it gets a kid engaged," he said. "If they come up with a project that excites them and makes them want to work hard on doing a good job, is that a bad thing? I don't think so."

Carrie was so excited by fencing that she turned in a 26-page research paper when only 10 were required. She hopes to pursue the martial art as a member of Duke University's fencing team in the fall.

And the skills she learned extend beyond the proper execution of a lunge attack, Carrie said.

"There is great value in the things that they do," argued Sleeper. "Getting up and doing a presentation in front of strangers, writing a large paper with footnotes ... these are things they're going to have to do in the work force and college."

That was the purpose of including senior projects in the English curriculum at each of the county's high schools about 10 years ago, Carraway said. Columbia County is one of just a handful of school systems to mandate them.

"We've stuck with it because colleges are demanding that students in their first year do similar projects and research papers," she said. "In his first year of college, my son said, 'Mom, I hated senior projects, but it was the best thing I ever did, because I was the only one in my class that was prepared to meet the expectations of my professor.' "

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