Redesigning the Senior Year

Promising cures for senioritis engage students in experiential learning in pursuit of service and personal interests by JANICE R. DREIS AND LARRY D. REHAGE

The senior year by all reason should be the capstone of an individual’s time in the K-12 system. It should carry not only academic rigor, but also a spirit of unrivaled engagement if it is truly going to be an appropriate culminating experience. For many 12th graders across the country, it is far from that.

As the co-directors of the senior advisement program at New Trier High School, a large suburban public school north of Chicago, we knew well the challenges that the senior year so often presents, especially in the second semester when that pervasive disengagement sets in. Even in a school that prides itself in offering rigorous academics, the very spirit of the senior year often seemed bankrupt. Vacant eyes, unruly behavior, increased absenteeism and tardiness, flagging motivation and apathy are just a few of the symptoms of the widespread and contagious senioritis among 12th-grade students.

Janice Dreis and Larry RehageJanice Dreis and Larry Rehage describe options for improving the senior-year experience during AASA's 2011 national conference. Photo copyright of Lifetouch.

Our daily contact with seniors and their advisers gave us a portal to watch, listen and learn just what seniors were thinking and feeling about their senior year. Formal surveys, open forums and informal discussions with our students revealed they had some strong views about what ailed the senior experience.

Many were well aware they entered their final year with virtually all their graduation requirements met. More significantly, seniors found school had little relevance for them, and the absence of opportunities to direct their own learning fueled their disengagement. With the exception of Advanced Placement classes, many of our 12th graders did not see the senior year offering any meaningful preparation for life after high school.

Common among many 12th graders is the feeling that senior year provides just one more year of the same old routine. Most seniors are suffering from the “been there, done that” syndrome, which can quickly sap motivation to engage in nearly anything that resembles the all-too-familiar pattern of school life they know so well.

Their disengagement stems from the fact that these students simply have outgrown the institutional environment of the high school. Seniors are generally expected to abide by the same routines and structures that may be appropriate for the 15-year-olds in the building, but which make little sense to 18-year-olds who society recognizes as having a very different legal status from underclassmen. After all, they can legally vote and go to war. Do they really need to live in a bell-to-bell world that requires hall passes?

Finally, the coup de grace comes with those college acceptances that seem to arrive earlier every year. It is game over for seniors.

Student Preferences
In our conversations with seniors, they did not just gripe. They had some pretty compelling ideas about what would make senior year more meaningful. Many expressed interest in learning about topics, issues and concerns that were relevant to the adult world they were about to enter. They also indicated a desire to have a voice in what they learned and the opportunity to apply their knowledge and other acquired learning to the “real world.” Finally, many seniors shared the concern that they might not be prepared to interact in the diverse society that awaits them beyond high school.

Energized by what our students were telling us and mindful of the frustration that so many senior teachers were experiencing in their classrooms, we and many of our colleagues at New Trier High School were committed to finding antidotes to senioritis. The challenge of transforming the 12th grade became our driving passion.

In our school’s efforts to provide an engaging and meaningful senior year, we drew upon our faculty’s expertise, model school programs and best-practice research. Most importantly, we continued to turn to our students for answers or cures. We looked carefully at who these seniors are as we considered their psychological stage of development.

High school seniors are complicated and multifaceted folks. Above all, 12th graders have arrived at a momentous transition that for all practical purposes marks the end of childhood. The significance of the change they are about to experience must be fully appreciated. For many seniors, this means moving beyond the familiar world of home, school and community. They are about to enter an adult world that brings challenges for which they must be prepared. They have one foot in the world of adolescence and one in adulthood.

Despite their apparent apathy and disengagement, seniors are, in reality, overloaded with myriad issues. Questions about who they are and where they are going dominate their conscious and subconscious worlds. While many seniors think they will be attending college or working after graduation, actually they have no clear picture of what’s in store for them. They have only vague impressions or idealized visions of where they will live, the people they will encounter and what they will be doing.

Although the significance of this transitional year might seem overwhelming, most 12th graders are, in fact, ready to move forward when we consider their nearly universal desire for greater independence and enthusiasm for change.

Guiding Principles
In considering our own initiatives at New Trier, as well as many of the successful programs that schools have implemented across the country, we identified several key premises that can guide educators in creating a culture of meaningful engagement for 12th graders.

• Seniors are in a period of transition that must be recognized and embraced.

Seniors are the most capable students and can be an invaluable resource to the school and community.

Seniors are in need of new experiences that break from the old routine and allow them to confront new challenges.

Seniors are ready to apply learning to the real world where they can test their skills in solving problems beyond the classroom.

Seniors are eager to have a voice in what they learn and move beyond the teacher-directed curriculum to pursue personal interests.

Seniors are in need of adult interaction and mentoring that can help usher them into the next stage of life.

These foundational premises have inspired successful high schools to provide a rigorous academic curriculum and new learning opportunities that will foster the following: leadership, service, education beyond the classroom walls, self-directed learning, diversity awareness, self-knowledge, self-advocacy, independence and interpersonal skills.

Letting Seniors Lead
One of the most significant senior initiatives developed at New Trier is a leadership program called the Senior Instructional Leadership Corps. This program has gone a long way toward infusing new vitality into the life of many seniors. It extends leadership positions to qualified 12th graders by providing opportunities to assist a classroom teacher in classroom activities.

Molly, a New Trier graduate, reflected on her experience through the leadership corps in a first-year science class in a way that speaks volumes about the positive effects:

“I hope that I have helped these freshmen transition into high school as much as I know they have helped me transition into the real world. Next year I will be faced with many challenges, and my newly learned leadership and personal relationship-building skills will be very useful. I look forward to each day with these students because they make me feel useful and appreciated. Some might say they helped me find joy. I would say they helped me find a purpose.”

These seniors are an invaluable aid in assisting teachers in the classroom. Benefits are recounted in mentor teachers’ evaluations of their leadership corps students, positive comments from the students they teach and parent endorsements. Also, unquestionably, seniors have improved their leadership skills, acquired new knowledge about the art and science of teaching, and even deepened their understanding of the discipline they are teaching.

An unexpected outcome of the Senior Instructional Leadership Corps program is that some seniors discover they have a newfound interest in pursuing a teaching career. Above all, we have many students who are fully engaged in the capstone year of their high school experience as they give back to the community that has nurtured them.

This leadership corps has caught the interest of other high schools around the country that seek ways to invigorate the 12th grade and extend meaningful leadership roles to their seniors. Chartiers Valley High School in Bridgeview, Pa., recently implemented its Leadership Assistants program, a yearlong elective in which seniors act as aides/assistants in support of teachers and younger students.

Kate, a senior working in a German language class, extolled the program, saying, “It’s the best part of my day. … I don’t want to be a teacher, but I have an intense interest in German and I felt I could help the younger students. … The program is preparing me for the rest of my life.”

Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, Fla., has had a leadership program for seniors based on the same model since 2006. Their Key Instructional Leadership Team, one of the school’s centers of excellence for enriching students’ education, provides mentoring experiences for seniors that foster leadership, service, responsibility and an in-depth intellectual interest in an academic subject.

A pilot program was launched at Highland Park High School in Dallas, Texas, during the past year. Anecdotal feedback from both teachers and students has been extremely favorable. According to one administrator at the school, participants have been especially successful in mid-level classes where the students often require more support and encouragement. Seniors present lessons, work with students individually and help the teacher plan lessons.

Springfield High School in Springfield, Ill., fashioned a program that enlists seniors to assist with classroom instruction. Senators Teaching Senators offers seniors an engaging leadership position that provides service to the school and benefits the senior leaders, as well.

Audrey, one of the Springfield participants, says her experience will give her more confidence in her chemistry classes in college and that she has become more poised in speaking to groups. Audrey’s mentor teacher said: “She can do anything. … She can set up labs, help produce worksheets, tutor students … it’s a terrific plus, and I think she has learned a lot. You don’t really know something until you’ve explained it to others.”

Lending a Voice
At New Trier, we explicitly focused our seniors’ attention on the magnitude of the life-changing transition they were about to experience during the next stage of life. To this end, we asked every senior: “In preparation for life after high school, what issues, skills and information/ knowledge do you think are important to address this year?” From their responses, topics emerged that then were addressed at a full-day Senior Institute planned and facilitated by senior high students.

The Senior Institute features workshops and presentations exclusively for seniors to help them prepare for life beyond high school. Topics covered typically include diversity awareness, navigating the freshman year of college, money management, substance abuse, legal issues, self-advocacy skills, date rape, personal safety and health issues. The senior class’s positive reception to the day and near-perfect attendance make a compelling argument that the institute material is of immediate relevance to them.

The idea of a special day for seniors to address topics important to them has inspired schools around the country to develop similar programs. At Chartiers Valley High School, this concept has been transformed into a two-day conference called Seniorpalooza. The students pick the topics to be presented, and professionals are recruited from the community to provide their expertise for the breakout sessions. In addition, a panel of graduates fields questions from seniors on preparing for postsecondary studies and life after high school.

The Senior Institute, beyond its educational value, provides an experience that enhances a sense of class unity, individual empowerment and excitement about the future.

Beyond Classrooms
No better way may exist for building a bridge to the world that high school seniors are about to enter than making the broader world their arena for learning and letting them experience it personally. New Trier’s senior project program gives 12th graders the chance to expand their education beyond the classroom walls and into the community. The program encourages seniors to pursue interests and passions that will help them develop independence, refine their problem-solving abilities and sharpen critical self-advocacy skills.

Students leave school grounds to partner with community members as they pursue their projects during the last five weeks of the school year. The experience culminates with presentations of learning and an exhibition to which the school and the community are invited.

Seniors have pursued interests and dreams in foreign countries and at hospitals, law firms, advertising agencies, fire departments, small businesses, radio and television stations, social agencies, schools, dance studios, theatrical companies, restaurants and myriad other venues. As a result of their engagement in these stimulating educational settings, our 12th graders exhibit increased confidence and excitement about their abilities to contribute actively in an adult world.

Bird High School and James River High School in Chesterfield, Va., implemented similar culminating projects in the senior year. At Bird, students in the Governor’s Academy for Engineering Studies develop projects that are presented to an audience related to their specific interest in an engineering field. The audience includes staff and parent guests.

At James River, students in the Center for Leadership Studies move through a formal presentation of their project proposal (related to some form of community service) to a panel of school staff. Students then move forward to develop and conduct their service project with a summary panel presentation of the results at the end.

Strong evidence suggests experiential, project-based learning can be a powerful vehicle for engaging and educating 12th graders. Such programs are readily appearing in effective high schools nationwide. Several states have endorsed experiential learning as a mandate for graduation.

These experiences have been given various names such as the “End-of-Year Project,” “Final Project,” “May Project,” “Senior Options” and “Capstone Experience.” Regardless of the name, these programs are tied to a common and compelling theme: Given the opportunity to direct their learning with the compass of their curiosity, interests and passions, seniors will demonstrate the motivation and discipline to direct their lives and become lifelong learners.

Matching Profiles
While we know there are numerous ways in which high schools might redesign the senior year, we need to find more ways to create an educational experience that matches the developmental profile that seniors present. Most significantly, 12th graders need opportunities to direct their own learning and shape a curriculum relevant to their needs and questions.

Janice Dreis and Larry Rehage are education consultants and former co-directors of senior guidance at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. E-mail: dreisj@gmail.com, lrehage@gmail.com. They are co-authors of Making Grade 12 Meaningful.

Additional Resources
Janice Dreis and Larry Rehage suggest these background resources on redesigning the senior year.

•  College Knowledge by David T. Conley, Jossey-Bass. Outlines the skills and knowledge in various disciplines that incoming college freshmen need.

•  Crossing the Stage: Redesigning Senior Year by Nancy Sizer, Heinemann. Proposes practical and innovative suggestions for 12th grade based on interviews with seniors. 

•  Making Grade 12 Meaningful by Janice Dreis and Larry Rehage, International Center for Leadership in Education. A comprehensive resource about model programs for redesigning senior year. 

•  Overcoming the Senior Slump by Randall G. Glading, Rowman & Littlefield Education. A practical guide on the value of internships, mentoring programs, student-directed projects and other relevant work-study initiatives for preparing seniors for college and beyond.

Articles (by Janice Dreis and Larry Rehage)
•  “Beyond Academics: Conquering Senioritis,” Principal Leadership, February 2009. Discusses why seniors need more than rigorous academic work in preparation for college. Describes a student-driven guidance plan, culminating in a full-day Senior Institute.

•  “Let Seniors Lead,” Educational Leadership, May 2006. Explains the workings of the Senior Instructional Leadership Corps at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill.

•  “Recasting the Senior Year,” Principal Leadership, February 2008. Overview of four programs to transform the senior year, with focus on student-directed learning and inclusion of all students.

•  “Senior Seminars: Focus on the Future,” Principal Leadership, December 2010. Explains two distinct approaches to senior seminars, academic-based and guidance-based.

“Senior Seminar Handbook” by David Conley, Center for Educational Policy Research . A practical guide for developing rigorous academic seminars that provide challenging college-like experiences without teaching college material.

“Twelfth Grade Programs” by Janice Dreis and Larry Rehage,” A website devoted to examining the issues of senior year and providing model programs for rigorous and relevant learning.