LAND O'LAKES — When the time came to select senior project topics, Zach Witthoeft chose mixed martial arts.
It's a subject the Land O'Lakes High senior wanted to know more about, but never before took the time. He took to heart the message that the yearlong research and presentation project is a chance to discover something new while honing important skills.
But he sees all around him classmates who don't take the assignment, which counts as part of their senior English grade, as seriously as their teachers might like.
"And once you don't take something seriously, it loses its point," Witthoeft noted.
That message has hit home in the Pasco school district lately. A recent survey of high school graduates showed that just 35.5 percent of respondents deemed their senior project "meaningful," down from 71.6 percent the year before.
"That's a concern," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said after reviewing the report. "It could be a blip or the start of a trend. We want to make sure this is only a blip."
Even before seeing the results, the district began taking steps to shore up the 12-year-old senior project program, which began as a Gulf High initiative and has over time become a requirement for most of the county's seniors. Back in January, the district curriculum department started aligning the project's core components — including research, writing, technology use and oral presentation — with the high school curriculum standards.
The group then looked for ways to make the project guidelines and expectations more consistent throughout the district, and for ways to get teachers to integrate the skills into their instruction during all four years of high school, secondary education supervisor Angie Murphy said.
They even surveyed seniors to determine which skills needed more attention. Writing a research paper and speaking in front of a group appeared to cause the most angst.
The district is going through this effort because educators consider the underlying tenet of the senior project to be worthwhile. The ability to gather information, synthesize it and share it with others both in writing and orally has value, whether the teens go to college or to work.
"We emphasize that it is to help them and let them know it's not something we do just to make them do it," said Margaret Deurosie, Mitchell High's senior project coordinator.
In the survey of graduates, Mitchell had the highest percentage of respondents saying the project was meaningful, at 53.9 percent.
"We approach it positively," Deurosie explained. "We also approach it as something they can do to help themselves as they enter college or the work field."
Even if students don't appreciate it at the time, she said, they often see the value after they get into a job or a college class.
Gulf High principal Steve Knobl said he would have guessed that one of every two seniors at best would have found meaning in the project.
"For some kids it's a task they were required to do and that's it," Knobl said.
He figured if the students had a good mentor helping them, that could make a big difference. But many don't even select one until late in the game, Knobl noted. The school has lately focused on connecting students with mentors if they can't find one on their own.
Zephyrhills High principal Gerri Painter agreed that having a strong mentor is key.
"What it boils down to is this: It's very important that students start thinking about this in their junior year," Painter said. "The quality of that mentorship is something you've got to develop as a junior."
Pasco High started requiring senior projects later than many other high schools. Principal Pat Reedy said the school did experience some bumps in implementing the concept.
"I have seen it come together and get the bugs out," Reedy said, questioning whether the survey told the entire picture. Students might not like doing all the work as they're involved in it, he said, but "I haven't heard any big complaints from the kids at the end, once they're done with it."
Land O'Lakes High senior Devin Arrabito is one student who district officials mentioned as an example of a senior who is going about the project the right way. He's focusing his research on his passion and future career goal of glass jewelry making.
"It helps me learn what I need to do. It's kind of like a bonus," Arrabito said of the senior project, calling it more useful than passing the FCAT. "It's what I like to do, and if I can get a grade for it, why not?"
Many students, though, don't really understand that, said Witthoeft, Devin's classmate. "They just try to get the easy grade."
Fiorentino said that's the attitude that the district will continue to tackle.
"It's what the kids put into it," she said. "Those that do something looking into a career learn about it ... and really get into it. Then there's always the slacker who does enough to just get by. That's something on our end to make sure we follow up with the kids and tell them this can be meaningful, if you allow it to be."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.