In this photo Linnea Lukatch, right, demonstrates veterinary lab techniques in her community presentation.

Seniors enrolled in this year’s Evanston Township High School’s Senior Studies are getting a taste of the real world – while earning six credit hours. Dave Allen and Steve Newman, the highly committed veteran teachers who team-teach the course, said Senior Studies has tried to “revamp 12th grade” since its inception in 1999. It is, they said, an “ongoing effort to remove the artificial boundaries between school and the real world.” This year’s 49 seniors who elected the year-long interdisciplinary and experiential program have signed on for a year emphasizing academic research, service and community involvement, bolstered communication skills, individual interests conjoined with meaningful learning – and friendship. 

According to participant Josh Hamburg, Senior Studies has been about freedom: to step outside the regimentation of the traditional school curriculum, to be exposed to a cadre of interesting people who can constructively influence students on the cusp of graduation, and to imagine where his passions might take him professionally.

“I love music, and my experience being in the Y’s Brillianteen show this year really influenced my Senior Studies project,” Josh said. “I can’t read music and haven’t really had formal training, but my singing role as Joseph [in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”] kind of cemented the idea of experimenting with this strong interest in music.” Josh’s focus on live performance culminated in his spearheading an Earth Day concert at the Evanston Ecology Center and creating a musical montage of live and recorded music for his required Senior Studies community presentation on May 12. 

Before the second semester of independent and self-guided learning, Senior Studies students experience a more structured first semester of two three-week thematic units. There are field trips, panels of experts, research projects, writing assignments, required and self-selected reading, group projects, service learning and a commitment to 50 hours of community service.  Units the students experience include “Community Activism,” “Local History,” “Writing,” “Education,” “Crime and Punishment,” “Arts” and “Race.” Laying the foundation for the whole year, however, are the first few weeks of orientation – the beginning point where principles of cooperation, risk-taking, and community engagement are introduced and reinforced.

Senior Priscilla Ruiz’s Senior Studies project was a sort of confrontation of the traditional “senioritis.” She said of her classmates: “We are a pretty tight group, and we’ve developed into a caring community.” She said, “Because we’ve gone through a lot together, we are a little like a family.” Ms. Ruiz, who will be attending Hope College in Holland, Mich. next fall, will be studying physical therapy. “Rather than doing my project about physical therapy, I decided to look at who we are as seniors at ETHS. I wanted to make a film about the importance of the senior year in high school. I loved being in Senior Studies, but maybe it’s not for everyone. There are many obligations and responsibilities, and you have to be able to concentrate and focus and use the freedom they give us,” she said.

Even for students who easily recognize their interests and talents, Senior Studies is sometimes a circuitous journey. Student Linnea Lukatch says she did not have to dig deep to uncover her passion about animals, but still took some time to zero in on a discrete topic and project of manageable size. She arranged for an internship with Bergland Animal Hospital in northwest Evanston, where she assisted three hours a day and became adept at performing routine laboratory tests on dogs and cats.

“When I began working on my project,” she said, “I was more interested in being around the animals; but then I got into doing research about animals.” She gave credit to Mr. Allen and Mr. Newman and her adviser team who encouraged her to narrow her topic and focus on the answers to a single guiding question. Ms. Lukatch, who has owned dogs, ferrets, horses, snakes and prairie dogs, decided to study animal intelligence. Her final project, presented on May 5, included a Power-Point presentation about animal cognition, and a demonstration and guided group lesson in lab-testing technique to identify parasites in animals’ fecal specimens.

“Linnea has scored a first,” said teacher Dave Allen, who has supervised over 500 Senior Studies projects. “This is the first presentation in 12 years that has included studying poop!” 

An existing family interest in genealogy led senior Laura Baker to dive into the topic for her Senior Studies project. In her presentation in early May, she told the audience about the many hours she spent on websites and working with experts at the Newberry Library, the African-American Genealogical Society and Evanston’s Shorefront. She encouraged people interested in tracing their own family trees to begin with photos, diaries, letters, old Bibles and interviews with family members. Laura’s presentation took place in an ETHS computer lab where audience members were asked to log into various ancestry websites to initiate research.

“I’m proud of the work Laura has done and hope she continues,” said Dino Robinson, creator and director of the not-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the historic African-American contributions within the Chicago suburban North Shore communities. Laura’s Senior Studies ancestral research at Shorefront gave her practice in doing research, put her in touch with family with whom she had lost contact and also led to her undergoing DNA analysis that identified her own family roots in the African country of Cameroon.

Engaging with the community is key in Senior Studies and every Senior Studies student has a group of community advisers. Holly Smith has been such an adviser almost since the inception of the program.

“My own kids each were Senior Studies students and couldn’t have loved it more,” said Ms. Smith. “I remember the photography project my son developed and the dance project my daughter did. Since then I’ve seen students developing and presenting every kind of imaginative and brilliant project you could think of.” She noted that in the three scheduled presentations before their adult advisers, students had to write a formal project description, create a budget, identify research and community service opportunities, and finally present their final work that had been refined through the processes in place. “And through it all,” she added, “the support students got from the peers in their ‘pod’ [work team] was very important.”

Another veteran community adviser is Pat Navin, who has been involved for seven years and is the father of Senior Studies student Anna Navin. “This program has reaffirmed my faith in young people,” he said, “and also in the power of dynamic teachers. I like the very thoughtful way kids learn in this program, the stone-in-water ripple effect of starting with ourselves and our community – and then going on to learn about the larger world.” Mr. Navin applauded his daughter’s photographic study of the Indian and Pakistani communities on Devon Avenue and also the other “very smart, creative and passionate students in the program.” Two of his personal Senior Studies favorite projects this year, he said, were D.J. Fish’s ambitious development of a weekend Improv Festival and Adam Chernoff’s presentation of American history through rap music he wrote himself. “I think this year had one of the most diverse and interesting line-ups of students and projects,” he said. For parents, students, teachers and the general public who have attended the Senior Studies presentations this May, there has been, indeed, something of interest for everyone. Students have produced and directed plays, created full-scale fundraising events for charities, developed an art therapy program in a hospital, created film documentaries, shadowed Evanston firefighters, studied autism, started a Latino Dance Club in a Chicago Public High School, and done research on the outcomes of birth order.

Priscilla Ruiz said, in describing the impact Senior Studies has had on her, “I feel honored to have had such trust from teachers.”