Ava DeCapri’s Senior Studies presentation at the Ecology Center, “Inverse Graffiti,” included large stencils she created and used to leave earth-friendly sidewalk images around town. Photo by Judy Chiss

Spring of senior year is traditionally the time that seniors coming up to graduation “tune out” school. However, the 50 seniors enrolled in the year-long, three-credit Senior Studies course were been anything but lethargic as they completed their long-term independent study projects and geared up for presentations to classmates and the community at large. During May, all 50 projects – from film and radio documentaries to arts demonstrations and restaurant internships – were open to the public at the high school and other venues around town.

“With Senior Studies, we are asking, ‘What does learning look like?’” said English teacher Steve Newman, who, with the History Department’s Dave Allen, teaches and facilitates this nontraditional course that integrates history, English and service learning.

“Students work hard, but have a great deal of independence, as they develop a project that is essentially self-motivated,” Mr. Newman said. He explained that first semester is an interdisciplinary approach to thematic units — local history, education, crime and punishment, the arts, race, and service to community. Students work in pods of five or six; create writing portfolios, go on field trips and hear speakers, and read and discuss articles, reference materials, contemporary non-fiction and literature that support the curricular themes. “Instead of tests, first-semester students do projects that culminate each unit,” he said, “and because a big focus is community engagement, all students are required to complete 50 hours of community service each semester.”

Senior Sylvie Doppelt settled on her independent study project while working hard balancing school and volunteer responsibilities as Brillianteen Youth Showboard Manager at the McGaw YMCA. “I’m a former competing gymnast,” Ms. Doppelt said, “and I worked out my idea of teaching gymnastics and nutrition to young kids when I was spending so much time at the Y and making contacts with staff people there.”

Indeed, Y staff suggested that she might work with 25 5-to-8-year-olds at the Foster Reading Center and merge her curriculum with the Y’s after-school program there. Ms. Doppelt said, “I started out developing a gymnastics program for the kids – most of whom hadn’t been exposed to gymnastics before – but then realized that good nutrition was an important part of the sport and something else these kids could use. It evolved when I saw the need.” She explained that the work she and other students did first semester of Senior Studies helped her know how to put a plan together, how to make and utilize contacts in the community, and how to identify strong project ideas.

Ava DeCDapri created public art to illustrate how art and advertising can promote environmental awareness. Using a power washer and stencils, she removed dirt left by emissions to leave clean images on sidewalks and walls.

Another ambitious project was a documentary film about women’s achievement, developed by Adrienne Hoopingarner. Ms. Hoopingarner, herself from a family of three girls, interviewed nine Evanston women to focus on American women’s accomplishments since WWII, as well as challenges facing women today. Former mayor Lorraine Morton and student council president Sara Pitt represented the age span of the five generations of women interviewed.

“My hero in my project was Representative Jan Schakowsky,” said Ms. Hoopingarner, “because I’m very interested in politics. I was so glad she agreed to be in my film and that she came to my benefit also.” On Sunday, May 11, as another aspect of her Senior Studies project, Ms. Hoopingarner hosted a film-screening event at BooCoo Cultural Center and raised over a $1000 to benefit the Evanston YWCA’s programs. “This project was a lot of work, but so worth it,” Ms. Hoopingarner said. “I loved doing the interviews, but was surprised that editing was so hard and time-consuming. I was glad for the help from our school’s AV Center.”

The Evanston community has been generous in assisting and collaborating with Senior Studies students, places such as the Ecology Center, BooCoo, District 65 schools, the Center for Independent Futures and SPACE. Senior Libby Shafer, whose project focused on nature activities, had numerous Evanston elementary school venues for her in-school workshops; she also worked at Bridgepoint Academy serving developmentally disabled young adults. Sam Gilbert contacted Dave’s Italian Kitchen and Jackie’s Bistro about restaurant internships, having decided he would like more experience cooking and a chance to see how a full restaurant operation works – and both well-established Evanston restaurants accommodated him.

“At Jackie’s I worked directly with the head chef Vicente Delgado, and he let me do a lot,” Mr. Gilbert said. “I was most excited that I got to make this complicated chicken dish from scratch – even boning the chicken – then doing every step of the dish.” On the day of Mr. Gilbert’s community presentation, held at Dave’s Italian Kitchen, over 40 people sat down at two long tables in front of customized menus for the presentation meal. While guests enjoyed Italian bread, a mixed green salad and one of two deliciously prepared pasta dishes, Mr. Gilbert presented his business plan and answered questions.

“”I learned how to write a business plan by reading sample ones and also by reading the book, ‘How to Start, Run, and Stay in Business,’” Mr. Gilbert said. “I also learned a lot by just being in the restaurants and observing what was going on around me, like ordering from suppliers and the amount of expensive equipment there. I realized that Dave [Glatt] had spent a fortune on pizza ovens, for instance.” Mr. Gilbert’s business plan included a specific Evanston address, site dimensions and floor plan, product offerings, a marketing and advertising section, and projected expenses and revenues. “I learned that most restaurants don’t make it and that it’s hard work to make a good living running a restaurant,” said Mr. Gilbert. “I got more out of Senior Studies than anything else I took in high school.”

Every Senior Studies student has an adviser, and long-time Evanston resident and attorney John Donahue has enjoyed that role for several years. “I tell the students that I’m even more interested in their process than in the actual final product,” he said. “But one of the most interesting projects I’ve seen was developed by one of my advisees, Topeka Ellis.” Ms. Ellis, a dancer, decided to try producing a show. She based her project, “The Artist’s 36-Hour Problem,” on an established nation-wide contest, the “High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling,” during which groups of math and physics students combine skills to respond to a complex real-life math problem, in just 36 hours.

“I looked for artists [at ETHS] who were really into their art. Forty-five kids responded, and 19 of them actually signed a contract to do the work in the time allowed,” said Ms. Ellis. She explained that she gave each artist the guidelines, a working group and a prompt for their artistic expression. The prompt was a quotation from “The Wanderer and His Shadow,” (1880) by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“A subject for a great poet would be God’s boredom after the seventh day of Creation.” (Aphorism 56)

The 19 artists interpreted and artistically responded to the quote by painting and collaging, creating fashions, sculpting, dancing, writing and performing a theater piece, and by composing music. The artists’ combined work was presented in an hour-long event in the ETHS Little Theater, produced by Ms. Ellis.

The Senior Studies model engages students in authentic learning, but not by accident. There is productive team-teaching at work: There are thoughtful outcomes, rigorous timetables, coaching sessions and the hands-on teaching of skills that help transition students from high school to college and adulthood.

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....