As a growing number of states push to make the senior year of high school more rigorous, others are working to make the year a more meaningful experience that moves beyond academics.
Janice Dreis and Larry Rehage, educators for more than 30 years, started noticing the problem of senioritis as guidance counselors at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Ill. The duo says the needs of high school seniors weren’t being addressed in the curriculum, and as a result, students were lacking ambition and direction. “The senior year is such an important time for students,” Dreis says.
“They’ll soon be transitioning into the real world, and there can be a huge amount of anxiety, but schools rarely address this. We wanted to create opportunities to engage seniors in this final year that should be a capstone year.”
While academics are important, Dreis and Rehage say it’s just as important to focus on life skills and personal enrichment to help students transition from high school. A worthwhile and meaningful program that engages students in their final year can change the whole climate of school.
“If a school finds new ways to reinvent and invigorate seniors, students will be looking forward to that final year,” Rehage says.
Dreis and Rehage have developed programs that can help redesign the senior year. The efforts include volunteer projects, senior seminars and leadership programs.
The duo now travels throughout the country to help districts implement these programs. Rehage says any district can implement a basic program to engage its seniors at little to no extra cost. He encourages district leaders to talk to the students, teachers and parents to find out what kinds of programs could work.
In the Year-Long Service Learning Project, students pursue a community-based project, such as building a house for Habitat for Humanity, in their final year. Rehage says the program teaches students how to solve problems, work together, give back to the community, and follow through with a project.
Rehage and Dreis suggest that schools implement senior summits or campus-based seminars in which students can discuss significant issues affecting their lives. The topics for seminars can include success in college, time management, how to handle stress and personal safety.
In the Senior Instructional Leadership Core (SILC) program, seniors are placed in classrooms to help teachers with instruction and guidance. Rehage and Dreis say the program can build leadership skills and help students find a career path.
Senior Brittany King of Chartiers Valley High School in the Chartiers Valley School District in Bridgeville, Pa,, signed up for her school’s senior leadership program, which is similar to the SILC program, last fall with the hopes of finding something that would engage her in her final year. Now in its third year, the program is designed to boost senior involvement and school spirit.
As an assistant in a special education classroom, King worked closely with special needs students throughout the year. This fall, she’ll attend the University of West Virginia, where she plans to study special education. “I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, and it helped me figure out what I want to do,” she says.
The Senior Leadership program at Chartiers Valley High has grown from 29 students in 2009 to more than 60 slated for this fall. “The teachers love it, the students love it, and we’ve implemented it at no cost, so it’s basically a win-win for everyone,” says Bob Rodriguez, a history teacher who helps run the program. “Programs like this are important because schools need to rethink the way we deal with our seniors. We have to remember that it’s a transition, not an end.”