WESLEY CHAPEL — Corey Gray stood before his classmates at Wiregrass Ranch High School, fidgeting with his lanyard and rocking on his heels. His PowerPoint presentation illuminated the screen behind him.
After a nervous start to his senior project practice, Gray eventually settled into his comfort zone, talking about the lessons he learned while researching and performing as a baseball coach. When he was done, his English IV classmates had plenty of feedback.
Make sure you tell the judges how you were trying something new, teacher Jennifer Gould reminded him. Stop saying "um" so much, several students said. Slow down when you're speaking, a couple added.
Gray nodded as he pulled his thumb drive out of the classroom laptop so that Christian Campo could plug in his senior project slide show on tricking out a 2003 Audi.
For nearly 20 years, Pasco County high school seniors have completed such research projects as a required part of their English IV classes. The goal is to expose them not only to research methods, but also to time management, formal presentations, interviewing and other real world skills they'll need once they're out of high school.
But the Class of 2013 may be the last ones to face the requirement.
The Pasco school district administration has decided to suspend the senior project program for 2013-14, so a study team can review how implementation of the new Common Core State Standards might affect the projects. The Common Core places a stronger emphasis on research, critical thinking and academic discussion starting in earlier grades, so by the time kids get to senior year, the project could end up being unneeded.
"We need to rethink how we are going to do this," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said.
The goal, Larson added, is to make sure the projects add value to students' time in school. She noted that in the district's most recent survey of graduates, just 59 percent found their senior project meaningful. By contrast, 93 percent said their extracurricular activities were positive.
"We don't want them to do something just for compliance," Larson said. "We need to do it right so it's more valuable across the board."
She suggested the senior projects probably will not remain a district requirement. More likely, she said, that decision will be made at the school level.
Gray, who plans to attend the University of Tampa in the fall, said he had mixed feelings about doing a senior project.
He said it helped him work on public speaking and preparing a presentation based on lengthy research. On the other hand, he said, it created a lot of stress in meeting a string of deadlines amid all the other things he had to get done for school and life.
"It prepares you for college, and it's a huge thing," he said. "I think it was kind of pointless, and kind of not."
Campo, who plans to attend Mesa College in Arizona, said his project helped solidify his passion for mechanics and engineering. He had worried that he would come to hate the thing he loved most — working on cars — if he spent too much time on it.
"But it didn't work out that way," he said. "I think it's really helpful. . . . I would do it again."
He didn't find anything he would cut from the concept, except possibly the mentor requirement because they can be hard to find. Even that might not be a good idea, though, Campo added, because mentors help students learn about things they might not otherwise figure out.
Mitch Notting changed his future plans because of his senior project. He had intended to study culinary arts after graduation, but by researching the U.S. Marine Corps and testing its delayed entry program, he decided to enlist.
"Before I did this, I thought I knew a lot about (the Marines), but there is just so much more," he said.
Notting, like many others, didn't have high expectations going into the project.
"At first it was like, 'Man, I wish they didn't have this,' " he said, calling some of the work tedious and time consuming. But as he got into the project, Notting said, he came to appreciate its value. At the end, he said, "I wouldn't really change it."
Gould said she wouldn't rush into major changes to senior projects either, because she's seen the positive benefits they've brought to students who try. By the same token, though, she acknowledged that the coming new standards could change the picture.
"As long as the skills are continued — and the Common Core does have those skills in there — then I'm happy with it," she said.
Her students are set to make their official project presentations on April 25.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek.