Senior project sunsets

Aidan Backus, Editor-in-Chief

Just a year ago, the senior “capstone” project was a major coming-of-age tradition at Bear Creek.  Seniors lamented the long days and sleepless nights that were necessary to complete the project — but once it was over, those same seniors let out a hurrah for a job well done, and breathed a sigh of relief as it was time to graduate.

The project amounted to a year-long assignment based out of seniors’ English classes that would require them to write a research paper in a field of their choosing in the first semester, and then complete field work in the topic in the second semester.  Many seniors used their senior projects to leave their mark on campus or in the community by completing volunteer work or establishing clubs.  Others used the project as an opportunity to learn new skills or explore a field of interest to them not traditionally covered in high school.

“You do a lot of busywork in high school, but the senior project is not busywork,” said graduate Tomas Leonhart, who created a tabletop role-playing game with his project.  “I didn’t want to do it at first, but the senior project teaches you writing a research paper and networking.”

Perhaps most important, some students used the project to explore a college major or career choice.

Jessica Nguyen, who is entering her sophomore year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, decided to study electrical engineering as a result of her senior project.

“I’ve always been interested in the topic of solar energy so I decided to do my research paper on photovoltaic systems,” Nguyen said.

Aided by her mentor, calculus teacher Eric Vallecillo, who has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Nguyen built a solar-powered phone charger.  However, Nguyen said that she would not have pushed herself to explore this area of interest if not for the senior project.

“I would not have challenged myself to create something new without a push,” Nguyen said.  “My senior project gave me that push.”

However, the senior project is no more: the class of 2016 will not be required to complete it to pass their English classes.  When word of its termination broke last spring, juniors responded with a mix of shock, disappointment and relief.

“[The cancellation] came up unexpectedly; I didn’t think it would happen,” senior Jober Camangian said.  Campangian also expressed concern that a more time-consuming assignment would supersede the senior project this year; though while there is no school-wide assignment in the works, individual teachers may have other plans.

The senior project was done away with at the request of the English department, which met last spring to put the nail in the coffin of a slowly dying tradition.  Originally the project was a district-wide program certified by a national organization, becoming a graduation requirement in 2000.  In the face of the recession, Lodi Unified eliminated the senior project as a graduation requirement in 2010 and slashed funding, prompting most schools to terminate the project.

Few tears were shed outside of Bear Creek.

“Most seniors … will just do what’s easy for them and not necessarily try to make it into a project,” then-Lodi High senior Joshua Guns said in an interview with the “Lodi News-Sentinel.”  “I’d be happy to see it go.  It’s really just a waste of time.”

Guns was not the only one to question the worth of the senior project, especially once the senior project could no longer claim a monopoly on teaching critical thinking skills.

“Teachers always knew that when Common Core came on board, if we did it right, eventually it was going to switch from senior projects to Common Core,” Brooke said.  “It became obvious that it was time [for the senior project to be eliminated], but some teachers wanted to keep it a little longer.”

However, Bear Creek vowed to fight on, even though the district no longer paid for staff to stay at work for extra days to grade papers.

“It is ironic that with the recession over the senior project ends, but it was a very labor-intensive program,” AP English Literature teacher Lynda Farrar said.  “We had to sacrifice Thanksgiving break to correct research paper rough drafts, and Christmas break to correct final drafts, but we felt strongly that it was a valuable program.”

Senior English teachers began to mount complaints against the exhausting workload, and under the direction of former department head Twilla Cancilla.

“There was dissension in the department; after five years of doing all that unpaid work, it really wore on the people that were doing it,” Farrar said.

Nevertheless, the English department agreed to hold off updating the senior project for Common Core standards until the end of the 2014-2015 school year.

“There was a consensus among the senior project teachers to leave the project unchanged for one year as we prepared to move towards project-based learning, one of our school-wide goals,” current English department head Grace Morledge said.   Project-based learning, in this context, refers to assignments done collaboratively among students, unlike the senior project, which was completed by an individual.

However, at the end of the 2014-2015 school year, Cancilla sent out an email to the English department announcing that the senior project had been cancelled.

“The principal came to me three times about ending [the senior project during the school year, so we ended it at the end of the school year,” Cancilla said.

Cancilla’s account contradicts those of other staff members, including Morledge and principal Bill Atterberry.

“Mr. Atterberry asked Mrs. Cancilla to meet with the English department,” Morledge said.  “Mrs. Cancilla did not meet with English teachers; rather, she just sent out an email [ending the project].”

“I came to [Cancilla] and asked if she planned to take the senior project to a vote with the entire English department,” Atterberry said.

Atterberry said that there were valid reasons for Cancilla to not hold a vote; for example, if she felt that there was a clear consensus in the department.

“If the votes aren’t there, there’s no reason to hold a vote,” Atterberry said.