Private schools have been doing this for years. My eldest child, the baseball enthusiast, analyzed 26 major league parks he visited as a graduation project for his California private school. My youngest, the humor writer and editor, studied carpentry and built an elaborate wooden news rack for her D.C. private school's main office. My middle child attended one of the few New York public schools to try senior projects. He was a golfer and gave a presentation on his internship at a local pro shop.
Such enterprises add depth to high school -- a chance for each student to explore something that intrigues him or her personally. Here are some of this year's projects at Wakefield: Suzi Bass, adopted from Colombia, created a film encouraging young pregnant women to consider that option. Milad Beygzadeh is raising $1,000 for disaster aid. Jose Lopez chronicled his learning how to be a dad and a good student. Katherine Williams described her preparations for a ballet competition and successful effort to get into Julliard.
Why should just private schools, and a few exceptional public schools such as Wakefield, be encouraging insight through sustained effort? This relates to another of my pet peeves: the reluctance of American public high schools to assign even one research paper of significant length and complexity before students graduate. The exceptions are schools (there are about two dozen in this area) that offer the International Baccalaureate diploma program. Many IB students have told me the 4,000-word extended essay they wrote in their senior year was their most memorable high school experience, but only a few private or magnet IB schools make everybody do that.
Granted, it is not easy to convince teenagers, who prefer an episodic existence, that persistent effort toward a long-term goal is good for them. Lisa Labella, senior project coordinator at Wakefield, said, "It has become something of a tradition to threaten to transfer to Washington-Lee [just three miles away] whilst waxing bitterly that Wakefield is the only high school in the world that has senior projects." But Marie Shiels-Djouadi, the former Wakefield principal who oversaw the start of the program, said she and her faculty thought the personal nature of the projects would make a difference. She was delighted to see that when the first projects were received enthusiastically by students' friends -- far more influential than parents or teachers -- young minds changed quickly.
Doris Jackson, Shiels-Djouadi's successor, said a key part of the experience is facing a panel of judges, often local experts. Teenagers suddenly confront the standards of a wider world. Up to that point, many get that opportunity only on sports teams. Through a long sports season, they are asked to plan, practice and execute to reach a challenging goal with personal importance -- just like a senior project. No wonder they remember more about football than U.S. history.