"High Achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation." - Charles Kettering

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Trip Down Memory Lane: Senior Projects Part I

In the midst of all the Senior Project hoopla, I did what many scientists did. I stopped and thought about what I knew and how I knew it. The projects as they existed when the board approved the new graduation requirement in August of 2011 have morphed into something nearly unrecognizable as approved in November of 2013. Here's what I wrote in the August 17, 2011 edition of The Evansville Review:

Evansville School Board Approves New Graduation Requirement
Community Service Senior Projects Will Be Required beginning with Class of 2015
By Melissa Hammann

Nearly eighteen months have passed since EHS Principal Everson first proposed to the Evansville School Board a new graduation requirement. Each student in the Evansville School District would be responsible for designing, implementing and presenting to a committee a Community Service Project in their senior year. “Non-negotiable” components of the projects include 30 hours of service and a multimedia presentation to a committee comprised of a primary teacher and a community mentor. The board was concerned about a number of details and Mr. Everson agreed to run a pilot program in 2010-2011 to demonstrate the feasibility of such a program. Six students originally volunteered for the projects and three were chosen to present their projects. One student even changed her career aspirations to include a four year college degree in order to work with disabled students. More pilot programs will continue in 2011-2012.

This concept has been implemented in schools around the country in various forms. EHS would not grant credit for this requirement in the spirit of community service for the sake of itself, but completion of all the project requirements would be necessary for graduation. Board Member Sharon Skinner asked “What if a student refuses to complete a project?” Mr. Everson noted that students in danger of not graduating are routinely taken under the wing of a teacher mentor.  Most students wish to participate in the graduation ceremony, which would only be allowed upon timely completion of the Senior Project.

Board Member Tina Rossmiller expressed concern that parent involvement will be critical. Principal Everson noted that if the board approved the new graduation requirement, he could begin that process with the Freshman Orientation night in a few weeks. Regular communications could be built in throughout the high school career and reminders sent that are effective and include parents or guardians of students.

The new civics class “Project Citizen” program can be viewed as kick-starting the process. This may be the first time students think more globally to identify areas of need in their community, make a plan and implement it to effect improvements. Senior projects are a perfect bookend complement to this process.

It is not expected that this new requirement would necessitate more resources from the district. Social studies teachers at the school could share the advisory role for students during normally scheduled contact time. Any costs associated with the project itself would be client funded (for example, a kitchen remodel like one of this year’s students did). 

Final criteria will be clarified and approved by the Board by January 2014.  The vote was 5-0 in favor of the new graduation requirement, with board members Dennis Hatfield and Nancy Hurley absent.

Breaking News with Board Meetings: There will be a new feature of the Business Board Meetings effective with the September 12 meeting.  Each month, two board members will be available for “community comments” from 6:00-6:30 PM just prior to the start of the board meeting. It is thought that this less formal atmosphere would be more conducive to citizen input and allow dialogue to progress. Board Members scheduled to appear in September are John Rasmussen and Tina Rossmiller. Please come and chat with them if you have “questions, comments or concerns.”

Reviewing this article was such at surprise to me. I am sure that the article accurately portrayed the events of the project approval in 2011 as I used a recorder to capture quotes for my articles.  I was disappointed in myself for not remembering the details before we were already fully engaged in the questioning of the project. This should have been reviewed before the board even approved the process. I invite you all to review the Senior Project Handbook at the website link below to see for yourself the stark contrast between how it was envisioned above with the final approved document.


The only resemblance between the Senior Project Handbook approved by the board on November 13, 2013 and the proposal presented to the school board in 2011 I see is the title "Senior Project." The "non-negotiable 30 hours of service" has become 30 hours to complete, including documentation and presentation. What was originally envisioned as a strictly community service project has expanded and now kids can choose some lame "experiential based learning" project. You actually have to look on the school website and see example suggestions to fully grasp its lame-inosity. The 6 pilot programs became 2 and apparently never included any further pilots in 2011-12. I challenge you all to ask for the documentation of these pilot programs but already know the answer: "We threw it out." How in the world do you do that if you're running a pilot program to inform future decisions?

There has been essentially no communication to parents since we were told of the new requirement at freshman orientation in 2011. This contradicts Scott's reassurance that "Regular communications could be built in throughout the high school career and reminders sent that are effective and include parents or guardians of students."  Effective reminders could have been sent but were not.  The first I heard about this since Freshmen orientation in 2011 was when my kid came home and told us a week after the board approved the Handbook in November. "Mr. Everson told us that Girl Scout Gold projects and Boy Scout Eagle projects can't be used for the Senior projects."  I was stunned. I had a set of expectations of this project back in 2011 which were completely overturned when Everson initially disqualified Eagle Projects from the Senior Projects. My husband and I remember saying, "If Will goes for his Eagle, this is a slam dunk Senior Project for him!" I challenged Everson on this and was placated by lies and half-truths, answers to which he never bothered to communicate to me directly. At the "optional" parent information meeting he held last month, I was stressing the point and he noted that the committee insisted that the project be self-contained in the Senior year and couldn't an Eagle project be broken down to have some part of it done beginning the summer before Senior year? I said I didn't know and it likely depended on how early a scout's 18th birthday was. If it was in September, probably not (Eagle projects are typically 18 months or more start to finish and must be earned prior to the scout's 18th birthday). If it was in June, maybe. I told him that the handbook does not forbid beginning work early and wondered why this was suddenly being invoked.  I went on the website and read the nebulous, unclear document called Senior Project Handbook several times to see where the time restriction was indicated and never found it. There is a reference to "work can begin after graduation day the year previous to graduation," but there is no specific restriction noted. More importantly, I was appalled by the complete lack of clarity that embodied the document. Even at the parent meeting, the only date that had been decided was when the kids had to hand in their proposals. No checkpoints have been defined, the final presentations have not been scheduled, etc. etc. etc. Even worse was that it would seem that our board approved this FUBAR without a hard copy in hand. So they have approved a web-based document which is ever evolving and has morphed into an unrecognizable document as compared to the original proposal. The final criteria has been clarified. Scott Everson is the gatekeeper and what he says goes. "If I approve it, you can do it. If I don't, you can't. And even though the handbook doesn't specifically prohibit working on the project prior to the onset of your official Senior-ness, you can't. Unless I say you can, like if you have to train to do a marathon or something. If you're dedicating hundreds of hours to the betterment of your community, you cannot begin a minute prior to graduation day prior to your senior year. The Pubah has spoken!" When my daughter's project partner went to him to get his approval because Ms. Buttchen told her to, he said, "Why are you coming to me with this?" "Because Ms. Buttchen told us to." She reported to our daughter that he just rolled his eyes. Of course, that could be teen drama too. It's in the dang handbook for gosh sakes.

A critical issue was brought up by a concerned parent very well versed with liability issues as regards service groups. She and her family are singlehandedly responsible for many many service projects in our community and she knows the necessary systems for safe operation of programs with children. Is liability incurred with certain kinds of projects, like training camps and community betterment work involving ladders and other potentially hazardous conditions? How at risk is the district? The kid running the projects and the kids enrolling in the camps? Their parents? After being told repeatedly that the board could not discuss these projects at the board level without it being on the agenda and then refusing to put it on the agenda, the parent who raised this issue left the April 9 board meeting after making their remarks only to have the board engage in a discussion on the Senior Projects after they left. First Mason had to take a crack at the parents for spending so much energy questioning a project that "teaches kids good work habits." He slammed a person who arguably donates the most hours I have ever seen one family donate to community service ever. Then he had to commend Scott on "this awesome program. Since Scott broached the topic and I'm not on the board after this." This likely violated open records law. Another board member asked about the liability issue and she was told, by Scott, "This can be handled with a disclaimer form. If we all worried about liability so much we'd never get out of bed in the morning." No reference to a discussion with legal counsel and how a kid running a cheer camp in the summer and the lack of infrastructure compares with the built in infrastructure of a school in full session. Just snide, obnoxious remarks that simply indicate their defensiveness and do not protect the district. I hope nobody ever gets hurt at a summer camp run as a Senior Project. The lack of foresight on the part of the administration and the board could well make a small injury become a very serious issue for the district as a whole. Just because people sign a waiver does not mean the district should cavalierly approach implementing a strong infrastructure to minimize the injury in such incidents.

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