Roaring Fork School District high schools prep for new senior projects | PostIndependent.com

Roaring Fork School District high schools prep for new senior projects

Ben Koski has an idea for a start-up business designing, producing and marketing a new line of tape measures online through Amazon.

Working with a program called "Amazing," the Basalt High School junior is in the process of developing the product, choosing a brand name, designing labels, finding a factory to build it, setting up an Amazon listing and creating a website.

"My dad has a pest control company, so I was thinking of things that he and his employees typically use out in the field," Koski said.

"The course walks you through a number of steps, and helps you determine what products best suit the program," he said.

Koski's will eventually be one of the first-ever senior projects, called Capstones, to be required of 2018 graduates from Roaring Fork District high schools.

About 45 junior and senior students this year are involved in a pilot project to help prepare next year's seniors, as well as teachers and counselors at Glenwood Springs, Roaring Fork and Basalt high schools, for the official rollout of the new project requirement. The alternative Bridges High School program already requires a senior project for graduation.

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Starting in the spring/summer and continuing throughout the 2017-18 school year, some 450 seniors will be busy working on their Capstones projects and preparing final presentations.

Along with successful completion of their course requirements, the senior project will now be necessary for graduation.

The idea comes from the district's visioning process in 2013 that asked the public what kinds of innovative education programs it wanted to see in schools.

"One of the things we heard resoundingly in all of our communities was that people wanted to have more hands-on, real-life, experiential and projects-based learning," RFSD Superintendent Rob Stein said.

Capstone projects are fairly standard in college programs, usually required between an undergraduate student's junior and senior years. The concept has found its way into high schools, partly because colleges and eventually employers are looking for those real-life applications, Stein said.

While more common still in private and public charter schools in Colorado, RFSD is breaking some new ground in bringing the senior project requirement into the traditional public high school setting.

"Innovation usually occurs more around the edges than in the middle, so we are looking for ways to embrace that," Stein said. "We want our kids to be innovative in the kinds of learning they are doing, and to be thinking about how to do things in a way that's unique."

Explained Capstones Program Coordinator Kelsy Been, projects can run the gamut from entrepreneurial, such as the one Koski is doing, to specific science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) or other course-based projects.

They also can be school or community service projects, career-based internships, experiential travels, such as foreign exchange, or those based in the performing or fine arts.

The school district is currently soliciting adult mentors in various disciplines from the community who will work with students to help them come up with a proposal and develop their projects, Been explained.

Projects will be individualized, though students can work in groups as long as each student has an individual outcome in mind. If multiple students work on a school or community project, each would have to take on a specific aspect and not be dependent on the others to complete their portion of the project, Been also explained.

"We are trying to be really flexible and make sure the students learn from the experiences," she said. "I do see opportunities for students to work together or work on similar projects, but the learning structure for each student would be a little bit different."

All students would ultimately have to prepare their own presentation on successes and failures and what they learned from the process.

District officials, including the school board, have had to answer to some parents who worried that the senior projects are too much to ask of students who are often already taking AP and even college-level classes while applying to colleges during their senior year.

But Stein said the senior project could be accomplished during a week's time over spring break, perhaps even during the student's junior year or over the summer.

"We are trying to be flexible and not be too rigid, especially in the early stages," Stein said. "We just felt that we weren't preparing kids with all the skills they will need, and this gives them the ability to find something they are interested in and pursue it."

Plus, more and more colleges are looking not just at academic performance but any real-life experiences students can include in the application process, he said.

"If you're really trying to game it and get into a good college, this would be an advantage," Stein said. "We're not creating another stresser, but another opportunity."

Been said the timeline for this year's juniors to begin developing their senior projects is also flexible, but teachers and counselors are already explaining the requirement to students and parents, including at the upcoming parent-teacher conferences next week.

Koski said he welcomes the challenge.

"For students who utilize it, it's a good opportunity to put your foot in a door outside of high school," he said. "For me, I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and this is a big step in learning how to start a business, make decisions and manage resources and time."