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High Schools Put Some Spring Into Senior Slump

Projects keep students focused until graduation

This time of year, senior slump is easy to spot: In high schools across the country, seniors skip out of a class or two. Deadlines mean nothing. Homework piles up.

After all, they've gotten into college. And that often means they're into senior slump.

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For students who have been driving hard throughout the year, it's like being told the rankings are in before they've finished running the marathon. The result may be just a low grade or an ill-considered but harmless prank. But since senior restlessness can sometimes jeopardize college acceptances and even graduation, more schools are gearing up to keep their top class motivated until it officially crosses the finish line.

Seniors are being encouraged to add internships, senior projects, and community service to calculus, French, and English. The idea is to introduce the students to new kinds of work, and give them a hand in designing their curriculum.

At Hamilton High School Humanities Magnet, a public school in Los Angeles, this is the second year of the senior-projects program. Before the program was started, says magnet coordinator Gary Garcia, "seniors were opting for three- or four-period days. Their attitude was, 'I already got accepted to Berkeley, why should I take six periods?' That was just not acceptable to me."

Now, however, the 76 members of the senior class have to devote their time to a year-long senior project, which is due in mid-May. The project can be just about anything that interests the student. Last year, seniors at Hamilton did everything from writing novellas to conducting sociological studies to working with a Cub Scout pack.

For Mr. Garcia, the range of options open to students is one of the most important parts of the program. "A lot of high schools have community-service requirements," he notes, "but at Hamilton, it's open-ended; you have to design it yourself. In our case, students can do community service, but they have to decide where to work and develop a plan themselves."

Michael Rhoton, a senior in this year's class at Hamilton, is collaborating with a friend on a musical titled "Aboard Montglane." He is enthusiastic about the senior-project program: "It's one of the neater things about senior year," says Michael, who will attend either Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., or the University of California at Berkeley. "By this time, none of my classes are really interesting anymore. But the senior project is still fun to work on, especially if you're doing something creative that you like."

Buckingham Browne and Nichols, a private school in Cambridge, Mass., takes a somewhat different approach to its "senior spring" program. With more liberty than Hamilton to restructure its curriculum, BB&N allows seniors to stop taking classes after their spring break in March. According to Bob Edbrooke, a Latin teacher and the senior-spring program coordinator, "virtually nobody continues all five classes." Instead, seniors are required to come up with 40 hours a week of activities, which may include any combination of classes, internships, community service, and sports.

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The senior-spring program at BB&N actually dates from the early 1970s, which were, according to Mr. Edbrooke, "years of ferment, with student rioting." Though things aren't so tumultuous today, he says, the program is still meant to keep restless students occupied in their last months at school. "By spring of senior year," Edbrooke says, "kids from schools like this are into college, forcing them to take classes proved to be unproductive."

Instead, seniors design an independent program with faculty supervision. This year, for example, five students are working on a Masai reservation in Kenya.

Jeff Hodess, a senior who is heading to Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., next year, chose something closer to home: He works three days a week at a sailboat charter company, helping with boat maintenance. He also sails on the school team, and takes an emergency medical technician training course at Northeastern University in Boston.

Jeff likes the new twist in his schedule. "A lot of friends at other schools fade out because the motivation to work is diminishing," he says. "This keeps us doing something that's a change of pace, and varied - and pretty fun."

Edbrooke says students "truly appreciate" the program. "It allows them to find out ... if they're really ready for independent learning. That's the biggest lesson, even if the project itself is a failure."

Senior-year reform is also in the air, on an even larger scale, in Nassau County, N.Y., where Hofstra University and the Nassau County High School Principals Association have sponsored a series of conferences on "The Senior Year."

Walter Yannett, assistant dean of the school of education at Hofstra, says that "the thrust ... is to develop a new curriculum, with independent study and senior projects, to make the senior year valuable, and keep seniors occupied to the end of the year." Currently, he admits, "we often lose them in May, when they take the Advanced Placement exams."

Several Nassau County high schools have participated, including Jericho High School, whose plan Mr. Yannett praises as "an alternative school experience, where seniors can apply their skills in an area that's of interest to them."

He says that reform is coming into its own: "We're really on the threshold of some major breakthroughs in senior-year programs."

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