December 14, 2014

RUS14 School Board considers capstone project proposal - By Elizabeth Richards

The graduation policy for Windham High School could see some changes in future months, including the possibility of creating a capstone project requirement that would replace the current requirement to complete 40 hours of community service in order to graduate. 
Windham High School principal Christopher Howell presented a proposal for the capstone project to the school board at a meeting on November 19th. At that meeting, he said, the board showed a fair amount of interest, but wanted a more detailed plan on how it would work. Howell is slated to return to a school board meeting in February to present a more comprehensive plan for consideration.

Although the graduation policy as a whole is under review due to the change to proficiency based diplomas, this capstone project idea is not a result of proficiency based learning, Howell said. The idea originally came up out of a discussion with the board around how implementation of the community service requirement was working out. 

At that time, the idea of a capstone project arose. Students would be able to pursue something within their own interests, and then work with a mentor to learn how to impact the community with their new knowledge, said Howell. The project would then become the focus for their community service hours, not necessarily with a rigid set of hours to complete, but whatever made sense based on their learning and area of interest. The hope, said Howell, was that the service would become something students looked forward to and wanted to do, rather than just something that was mandatory in order to graduate.

Discussions moved away from the project when the requirements for proficiency based diplomas were introduced. All professional time over the past two and a half years has been focused on creating a system that made sense for staff and students, and clearly defined standards and performance indicators for those standards, said Howell. 

As part of that process, while looking at ways for students to demonstrate proficiency in the Maine Learning Results Guiding Principles, the idea of a capstone project re-emerged. “These are all elements that we’d be looking to foster and, honestly, these are higher than content area standards because you can’t use content unless you can do these things with them,” Howell said. 

Before going too far with the idea, Howell said they wanted to be sure the board was going to be supportive, since the original community service model was board-driven. The goal was not to add another layer of things students must do, but to merge the two goals of community service and a capstone for the guiding principles. With a capstone project, “It becomes high quality community service, and also becomes something that maybe an individual has a lifelong passion about,” said Howell.

Although Howell has researched different models, there is not yet a clear plan of what the project requirements would look like. There are many pieces to explore, and a lot of work to be done before meeting with the board again in February. Howell envisions the project using community mentors, rather than relying solely on school teachers or staff. “Part of what we’re saying is that learning takes place outside of the walls of Windham High School just like it takes place inside,” he said. 

Some of the things he’ll be working on over the next few months are how students would demonstrate what they learned, developing rubrics and assessments to determine how much is enough, and determining what a presentation or exhibition of learning might look like. The goal, said Howell, is to create a process that isn’t overwhelming, and is truly student driven and engaging for students. “This is something I want kids to look forward to instead of something we are making them do,” he said. “What it gets us away from is the idea that community service is just a check off. It’s moving towards community service as part of a larger thing, which is taking your passion and applying it towards your community.”

Marge Govoni, the RSU 14 School Board Chair, says she supports the idea and thinks that the change will happen. “I think this is a great change for the kids,” she said. Community service, when implemented, was never really embraced by students and parents, she added. “It’s great to come up with something that would take its place and be more meaningful.”  

A capstone project that builds upon the interests of the student would also teach students to work on something that requires self-motivation, said Govoni. In high school, typically, everything is laid out step by step. But in college or a job after high school, students are expected to be able to work independently and think for themselves. “A capstone project is a great opportunity for the students to get their feet wet with what they’ll have to face after high school,” said Govoni. 

The idea is different than anything that has happened before, Govoni said, and there are some considerations to take into account, such as accommodations for students with IEPs or 504 plans. That’s why the board is taking its time to consider how to implement the plan to be sure students can be successful. 

Howell said that they begin working with eighth grade students in March, and if this plan goes forward, they would be able to present the policy change to those students before they arrive at the high school.

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