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Senior projects take students well beyond standardized tests
At tiny Federal Hocking in southeast Ohio, the projects count hugely toward graduation

Karen Kasler
At Federal Hocking High School, senior projects are a key to graduation.
Courtesy of KAREN KASLER
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These are the final days of the school year, and for most students, that means final exams and big papers. But Ohio Public Radio’s Karen Kasler found one tiny rural school district that goes beyond testing and written reports in helping students get ready for life after high school.

LISTEN: A different path to graduation

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It’s an annual tradition at Federal Hocking High School in Athens County – senior project night. That’s why vehicles are parked on the school’s lawn, including a race car and a big John Deere tractor by the front door. 

In the school’s main hallway, tables show off other projects – photography, a computer game, a series of videos on how to survive in the wilderness. 
And in the gym, still more:  a doghouse, hand-woven baskets, a football officiating certification.

It’s senior project time
This is the 14th year for the Federal Hocking senior project. It’s a requirement for the 35 kids who will graduate this year. They all have had to come up with an idea, research it, design a plan to make it happen, develop a budget and find some help outside the school. 

They have to defend their idea to faculty before they do it, and then describe how they did it once it’s done. Then they show off their projects to the community with multi-media presentations featuring photos, video and props. The requirement is to spend a hundred hours on it, but many far exceed that.

Animals, old books and fishing holes
Sarah Keirns from Athens spent a year and a half volunteering and raising money for an animal rescue. 

“One of my fundraisers was a yard sale. … My goal was a thousand dollars and I made $1,834. So that’s pretty good.”

Taylor Martin of Stewart started looking for dozens of old books, documents and pictures of the history of the area back in October. 
“A lot of my relatives had, picked up at auctions or just had them, but usually it was just I picked it up from people in the community.”

Cliff Bonner changed a hole on his family’s property into a lined fishing pond. 
“A lot of kids like to really take their time and really do really good jobs and put a lot of time into it, and other kids aren’t as into it and won’t do as extreme projects. But everyone turns out with something really good. That’s why these project nights are really cool.”

Skills learned and applied as well as displayed
The kids have challenges, such as Abbey Deepler of Guysville, who created a quilt. 

“Well, I had to learn how to sew first.”

Chris Lipps of Hockingport restored a 1987 F-150. 
“I had to buy a new cab and a new bed since it was too rusted out to fix. Then I had to rebuild the motor and the transmission because they were bad.”

Laken Clark of Amesville built a round horse pen with huge wooden posts. 
“That was hard by itself. Our post-hole digger broke, so we had to do it by hand.”

But school officials say the kids always get their projects done – sometimes at the last minute, and sometimes with teacher help. Some say this experience will help them with their post-high school plans, while others are just clearly proud of what they’ve done.

‘Doing something with my hands’
Willie Marks from Coolville designed and built a futon of wood from trees he cut down, and got a Best in Show. 

“I’ve never been that great of a student, honestly. I can’t stand sitting in class all day, trying to pay attention. I’d much rather be doing something with my hands. 

“So this worked for you? You got Best in Show.” 

“That was quite a surprise. I thought, I mean I knew it was a good project, but I didn’t know it was Best-in-Show kind of quality.”

A showcase
The driving force behind the senior project idea is Federal Hocking Superintendent George Wood. He says this night showcasing these projects is his second favorite event of the year, just behind graduation. 

“Every one of these kids are going to be our neighbors. They’re going to pay taxes. They’re going to make decisions about what goes on in our community. They better be able to do this kind of work. And I’m pretty confident our kids can.”

The senior project idea had been part of Gov. Ted Strickland’s education reform package, which was abandoned when Gov. John Kasich defeated him in 2010. A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education says it supports project-based learning that makes education relevant to students, but there’s no policy or legislation that would require students to complete senior projects like these.


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