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Senior projects challenge teens, help community


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Access-Ability, a local nonprofit that loans medical equipment to those in need, received a $10,000 donation.

Columbus East High School has a new a cappella group called the Acalympians.

Pregnancy support agency Route 21 has 20 new baby blankets to distribute to teen mothers.

That all transpired from a longtime Columbus high school tradition: the senior project.

The projects have been a rite of passage for seniors since 2003, when they became mandatory for every student to graduate from Columbus North High School, Columbus East High School and, later, Columbus Signature Academy New Tech.

Four years of coursework and learning come down to a 10-minute presentation to a panel of judges from the school and from the community.

“This process is a culmination of all the skills they have been learning and they have been taught through formal years of schooling,” said Anne Edds, senior project coordinator at East. “It lets students take charge of and take responsibility for their own learning.”

Project purpose

Columbus East High School first offered a senior capstone course in 2000 as part of its college-readiness pathway.

The project was not mandatory and only about half of the senior class participated — but that quickly changed.

Teachers and administrators presented the idea to the superintendent and school board at the time.

“They were so supportive of the concept that they mandated it for all seniors,” Director of Secondary Education Bill Jensen said.

Jensen said the senior projects are designed so students can show their teachers and the community what they can do beyond passing tests.

All Columbus seniors — there were about 850 of them this year — are given the same requirements: a proposal, a research paper, a project, a portfolio and a presentation.

“They should be able to articulate how the project has stretched their learning and their intellectual growth through their senior project journey,” Jensen said.

Edds said the project provides students with a set of skills they can use outside of the classroom. Students learn if they set up a meeting, they are going to need to be there on time. And they learn if they procrastinate, they are going to fall behind and experience stress.

“Time management, organizational skills, the ability to self-start — those are all skills these students are going to need no matter what they’re doing,” she said. “They’re naturally embedded in the senior project.”

Naveen Menon, a senior at East, said his project taught him a lot about science but also about time management, free thinking, troubleshooting and analytical assessment.

“Every day, I’d go to the lab, put on a lab coat and switch on the centrifuge,” he said.

He completed a program through the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis that paired him with a professor examining Lowe’s syndrome, which is a disease with symptoms similar to glaucoma.

“It’s always interesting to learn the cold, hard facts of life,” he said.

Not all students see the value in a senior project while they’re in the midst of it — a student in Washington state recently completed a senior project on ending senior projects.

She argued the projects waste class time and money, and some Columbus parents have written letters to The Republic in the past voicing the same concerns.

Edds said senior projects are different in Columbus, however, because the expectations are based on an individual student’s abilities.

“We understand projects need to be reasonable for students and their skill and ability level,” she said. “After students graduate, they come back and speak with us and they definitely recognize the benefits.”

Changing the community

About a third of the projects at Columbus East are community-oriented every year — another third have a career focus and the rest are centered on a personal interest, such as learning to play the banjo.

“It is very beneficial and you end up with a win-win situation,” Edds said. “You have a community organization that needs work accomplished or addressed and they don’t necessarily have the manpower or finances. And then you have a student who is willing to do the work, and the student ends up with a very powerful, very strong senior project.”

Every project at North must benefit the community in some way.

“Columbus is such a philanthropic community to begin with, and we felt the students needed to start giving back,” said Lisa Cooley, senior project coordinator at North.

She said the effort is working: Columbus is a better community because of the senior projects.

Officials at Turning Point Domestic Violence Services wouldn’t dispute that. The Turning Point Dance Marathon is the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year, representing 7.5 percent of the agency’s annual revenue. It started as a senior project.

“The amount of money the senior projects can bring to an organization is life-changing,” said Cindy Olson, executive director of Access-Ability.

Andrew Jones, a senior at North, sold ornaments to raise more than $10,000 for the organization to purchase durable medical equipment.

As part of the project, Olson took Jones and his wrestling team out in power chairs to give them perspective. They took note of cracked sidewalks, broken glass and high curbs.

“I realized it’s two different worlds if you’re in a power chair,” he said. “It’s my duty to help.”

Madel Presto’s senior project benefited a smaller community: the performing arts department.

She formed an a cappella group, the Acalympians, and organized several concerts to raise funds. The group also sang “Happy Birthday” to dozens of East students, brightening their day.

A Columbus golf course is a beneficiary of this year’s batch of projects. Senior Jake Armuth painted for Par 3.

He replaced tee markers and repainted water dispensers. He touched up the stakes and posts that were cracked or chipping.

“I wanted to repay Columbus for its golfing community,” the four-year golfer for North said. “They’ve treated me well. It felt great repaying where it all started for me.”

Springboard for success

Haley Newland, a senior at New Tech, said her project helped her reach her dream of publishing a novel — and now she has the confidence to continue as an author.

She started writing a story when she was 13 years old, and those words can now be purchased as a paperback book.

With the help of fellow seniors Joshua Bederaux-cayne and Justin Monroe, Newland published her original novel, “Zethena and the Sky Pirates.”

“(New Tech) really paved the way into helping me follow my dreams during my senior project,” she said. “Without their approval, I never would have been given the confidence or reliance to finish this book.”

Nathan Larrison is director of the Boys and Girls Club at Foundation for Youth. He said he never would have landed in that job if it were not for his senior project in 2001.

He was volunteering at a nursing home that is now called Keepsake Village, but he was also very active in his art class. To combine those two experiences from high school, he organized an art show at the nursing home as his senior project.

“It was all about events and planning and prep and organizing people and things,” he said. “It’s certainly been a big help to where I am now.”

He said he maintained a C average in high school, but he earned a perfect score on his senior project.

“It’s a huge opportunity to shine other than being textbook-savvy,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity, period. People can moan and groan about it, but that’s kind of the point — to push you.”

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