The senior project has long been a tradition in Pasco County — a "get out of high school" hurdle meant to better prepare students for what comes next.
And for many, the multi-layered, year-long project is well under way.
While each high school has its own nuances, most senior projects have similar components: picking a subject or topic at the beginning of the school year, writing a research paper on that topic, working with an adult mentor or a local organization on a product or event, putting together a portfolio and finally, giving a PowerPoint presentation, typically in the weeks leading up to graduation, while dressed in proper business attire before a panel of judges.
"It's not just about getting kids ready for college," said English teacher Harmonie Blankenship, who serves as senior project coordinator for J.W. Mitchell High in New Port Richey. "Sure, there's a research paper to write, but they also learn things like how to put together a resume and an interview outfit. It gets them ready for real world experiences."
Along the way, students get to practice other useful skills: time management, public speaking, problem-solving and critical and creative thinking.
And they might just step up to the plate with some community service — a requirement that Mitchell High added last year, whether it be putting in 15 hours with the SPCA or Habitat for Humanity.
"I think the community service part gives them some insight they need one way or another," Blankenship said. "With the economy, a lot of kids have been doing things about homelessness and hunger. It makes them more aware of the needs in their community — and more empowered, too."
Blankenship has seen plenty of stellar offerings in years past and can name a few that stood out.
There's the student who raised $1,000 for the Children's Cancer Center in Tampa by hosting a silent student art auction. Another who raised more than $10,000 by holding a benefit golf tournament for the YMCA's local Livestrong program. The kid who volunteered to help coach the Seven Springs Middle football team and created a playbook. That experience led to a coaching internship for former student Dan Gigantelli, who now has a job coaching wrestling at Mitchell High.
The most successful students typically chose a subject they had some passion for, Blankenship said.
"Today's kids aren't always challenged," Blankenship said. "But this often forces them to step up. I think when they walk out of that final presentation, they often feel good about that. I think they know what they've accomplished."
Blankenship offers helpful hints for the senior project:
• Pick something you are passionate about because that's the topic that will hold your interest all year, and then you'll get the most out of the experience.
• Don't procrastinate. While students sometimes push off other assignments and projects, they rarely can wait until the last minute and still be successful with the senior project. In turn, the seniors who get things done early have the least stress and the biggest smiles.
• Expect problems to come up during this project — and in life. Computers crash, printers run out of ink, etc. The students who find ways to overcome obstacles (i.e., backup files, e-mail files to your teacher) will be successful.
• Ask for help — even the best teachers can't read minds. If a student tells me everything is fine, I believe him/her. But the student who asks specific questions for clarity or help makes it easy on both of us.