Richard W. Riley, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, once called senior year of high school a “wasteland.” So bored, tired, and burned out are these soon-to-be-graduates that their apathy is often reframed as a disease: Senioritis. A dreaded affliction, Senioritis is the culprit for everything from skipping class to forgetting homework — and evokes protestations like, “Why? It’s pointless!”

Though parents and teachers may be inclined to blame teens, experts point to the way we’ve designed high schools. Just as 17- and 18-year-olds can see their whole lives changing — whether they’re headed to college or embarking on a career path — little about their daily life has changed. Their high school schedule isn’t focused on their fast-approaching futures. They know where they’re headed next year. Their grades no longer matter so much. Traditional high school is built around these external measures, and now that they no longer carry as much weight, the whole endeavor does, indeed, seem rather pointless.

What can be done about this plague called Senioritis?

Some high schools have set about making learning relevant by clearing time from seniors’ regular academic schedule so they can work on a capstone project. Senior capstones are ambitious, long-term, in-depth projects during senior year of high school that culminate in written and oral presentations. Not only do they prepare students for college-level work, they help keep the focus on learning in a year plagued by distractions and flagging motivation. And because they are based on the student’s choice, they also allow students to explore a topic or field they might want to pursue as a college major or career.

Depending on the student’s passions, this could range from an aspiring artist researching a local community’s history and painting a public mural, a fashionista designing a new line of clothing and writing an analysis of its inspiration, a future scientist studying soil samples in the nearby elementary school garden and presenting to the local school board on the soil’s safety issues. Many capstone projects combine what is traditionally thought of as “academic” work (writing, research, science) with something more hands-on or creative, such as art, invention, public presentations, marketing, activism, or public service.

Students research their topic over time, take notes, synthesize and analyze what they learn, and then demonstrate their conclusions in a paper, short film, or other product. They also give an oral presentation to a panel of evaluating teachers, peers, and/or experts. Senior capstones are often interdisciplinary, connected to the local community, and include interviews, scientific observations, and sometimes fieldwork, volunteering, or even internships.

Why are senior capstone projects important?

An August 2013 research report examining multiple high schools found that senior capstones both helped students stay engaged with school and were linked to positive outcomes. Teens completing capstones in North Carolina “received job offers, internships, and scholarships”; students in Louisiana reported that the capstone experience “influenced their future goals or plans;” and seniors in Massachusetts reported that their capstone projects helped them in college interviews and built their confidence and self-motivation.

When implemented well, senior capstone projects can…

  • Boost self-confidence by giving students a chance to excel in an area of in-depth learning.
  • Prepare kids for college-level work, which often requires more rigorous standards and deeper knowledge that typical high school coursework.
  • Keep students engaged in the last year of high school by allowing them to pursue something they’re passionate about.
  • Give students an opportunity to build and display crucial skills, including critical thinking, research, public speaking, media literacy, strategic thinking, self-sufficiency, and goal-setting.
  • Help students explore their interests, sometimes helping students decide which college major and/or career path to pursue (or not).
  • Help students find a sense of purpose in terms of how they want to contribute to the world.

How senior capstone projects work

Senior capstone projects can take on different forms and schedules at different schools but typically the student 1) chooses a topic, social problem, or profession that intrigues them, 2) spends several months deeply investigating the subject via research, interviews, and internships, and finally, 3) delivers the product in a paper, presentation, or performance that fully demonstrates the academic skills and knowledge they’ve acquired.

Some schools, like Denver School of Science and Technology: Montview High School, reduce students’ academic schedules during the spring semester to give them more time for their projects.

Capstones are frequently undertaken at the end of high school as a culminating experience, but they’re also tackled earlier, so students can showcase the accomplishment on their college applications. For example, the Jefferson County Open School (JCOS) in Lakewood, CO has one of the oldest capstone programs in the U.S. The school’s “Passages” program requires every student to do six capstone projects to graduate. Each of the six “passages” has a different focus — career exploration, adventure, creative expression, global awareness, logical inquiry, and practical skills — and each involves kids “doing something, an action element,” explains Principal Scott Bain. “They’re not just an academic task.”

“Capstones are a window into a kid’s skill set. They’re also windows into understanding who you are and what you value — personally, socially, intellectually — and what you want to do with your life,” Bain says.

When capstones don’t work

Critics suggest that senior capstone projects are far from a miracle cure, especially in schools where a majority of the students do not have strong academic skills. Deep rigorous learning requires more academic skills, not fewer. Although elite, private schools have successfully used capstones for centuries, EdTrust writer Carlton Jordan points out that the students are accustomed to extensive, in-depth writing. Jordan argues that capstones in predominantly Black and Latino urban schools often fall far short because the students are not sufficiently prepared for the task.

Senior capstone programs can also reinforce existing inequities. In a more haphazard program, students may be expected to use their parents’ connections to reach out to mentors or community members, instead of school staff making sure every student has a feasible plan for carrying out their project.

Key factors to consider:

  • Time constraints: Students from low-income families who need to work, take care of family members, or do extensive household chores, may not be able to dedicate as much time to a capstone project as their more affluent classmates.
  • Access issues: Students who want to explore their interest in an elite career via a capstone may have an advantage if they have family or friends of family in that occupation — and be at a disadvantage if they do not.
  • Implementation issues: Senior capstones are sometimes used as graduation requirement alternatives for students who are expected to fail graduation exams. This enables schools to offer diplomas to students without basic literacy and math skills.
  • Additional implementation issues: Conversely, senior capstones are sometimes designed for a few high-performing students, leaving out most of the senior class.

Key takeaways

For parents:

  • Ask if the school has senior capstone projects. If they do, ask to see the guidelines and some successful sample projects.
  • No capstone projects at your child’s high school? Ask the principal and 12th grade teachers if researching and producing an in-depth project is an academic option for all students.

For educators:

  • If your school doesn’t have capstones, build mini capstones into your class by helping students create multi-faceted, multi-month projects of their own choosing. Help your students create timelines with reasonable interim goals, so they’re not overwhelmed with last-minute tasks.
  • Connect students, especially those from underserved communities, to experts, local groups, and resource materials to help them in their research.
  • Push students gently out of their comfort zone, to think and work harder than they’ve done in the past.

For administrators:

  • If your high schools do not yet have capstone programs, read this research report on different ways schools have implemented them.
  • Start a pilot project with one innovative teacher or school site. Attend capstone presentations and urge other administrators, faculty members, and community members to attend and present feedback.

This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.

 

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Updated: June 3, 2021