BBACK TO NEWS
High School Senior Slump
The Spread of an Alternative Senior Program
by Taron Wade
June, 1999, Phi Delta Kappan. Reprinted with Permission
When Eric Zweig, a high school senior, finished his morning classes
on a typical Tuesday, he rushed right home. But he didn't call his
friends, play video games, or go to the park for a basketball game.
Instead, he changed into a suit and tie, grabbed a quick bite to
eat, and caught the 12:55 p.m. train to New York City. During the
second half of his senior year, Eric worked in the research department
of the American Stock Exchange. Riding the train into the city and
not returning home until 7 p.m. became part of his normal schedule,
as natural as going to classes and hanging out with his friends.
Woodlands High School in Hartsdale, New York, a student like Eric
is the rule, not the exception. His classmates held internships
at architectural firms, Planned Parenthood, dentists' offices, and
television and radio stations. Some made documentaries or pursued
independent study in music, photography, or car mechanics. But how
did they maintain jobs and learn independently when they were right
in the middle of their senior year?
opportunities were made possible through a program known as WISE
(Woodlands Individualized Senior Experience), which allows students
to design and carry out their own projects during the second semester
of their senior year. Students receive English, social studies,
and physical education credit for participating in the program,
which frees up most of their school day to work on their projects.
Woodlands High School, where the program originated, officially
launched it in 1973 to battle the infamous "senior slump", a time
when students have already applied to college and are "simply waiting
around to graduate," according to Victor Leviatin, the social studies
teacher who pioneered a pilot program in his class in 1971.
that year, as an experimental program, Leviatin offered his 12th-grade
students 10 weeks at the end of the second semester to do a sociological
project. "The students did wonderful kinds of work - from the study
of graffiti to the lack of practice of good samaritanism," he recounted.
After the success of the fledgling program, Leviatin and Andrew
Courtney, an art teacher at Woodlands, directed the creation of
the WISE program. "It soon became an important part of the school's
life," Leviatin noted. "Students were celebrating senior year instead
of leaving with a whimper."
Woodlands High is no longer the only place where this type of program
exists. In 1991 three retired teachers - Leviatin, Courtney, and
Olga Lara, who had taught social studies, formed WISE Services,
a not-for-profit organization, to help other schools develop similar
programs. With a staff of nine, headed by Leviatin, WISE Services
travels to schools to give information presentations about WISE
and provide support, in the form of workshops, to schools that have
commenced their own senior experience programs. Schools have joined
the network of WISE programs at an average rate of five per year.
As a result of work by the WISE Services staff, 37 schools across
the country are now offering similar programs for their seniors.
most important tenet of WISE, as explained by WISE Services staff
members, is that it allows a student control in designing his or
her own project. Sometimes the project includes an internship, but
that is not essential. Leviatin explains, "We found a program that
brings the current economy and research performed at universities
into students' lives - in most high schools there is a 10-to 15-year
gap between what happens and what kids learn." Although at first
glance the program may seem to give students too much freedom, it
is, in fact, quite structured. Students must keep a daily journal,
have weekly meetings with a mentor of their choice, do research,
and make a final presentation, which is evaluated by fellow students,
teachers, and community members.
students, teachers, and community members constitute the task force,
which is essential to the implementation and maintenance of WISE.
Leviatin and his staff always present WISE to schools as a changing
and dynamic program, in which the task force makes all planning
decisions and constantly evaluates and improves the process. "Collaboratively,
learning communities are formed, and teens are seen in a more positive
light," Leviatin stresses. "WISE empowers young people and parents
who are working together with teachers as equals." Approximately
15 to 20 people make up the task force, and all members contribute
to the group equally, regardless of age and seniority, which would
not occur in a traditional classroom setting.
task force does not grade students, but after the public presentation,
in a closed session, a team of evaluators composed of students,
teachers, and parents summarize their impressions, both positive
and negative, of a student's project. After the oral evaluation,
the mentor writes a final evaluation.
now, 13 of the 37 senior programs exist at schools in Westchester
County, New York. However, the most recent additions have been East
High School and Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, Colorado,
and Evanston Township High School in Illinois. There are also schools
with individualized senior experiences in Pennsylvania, California,
Florida, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts. All these programs
are structured by community members, under the guidance of WISE
Services, and custom-designed to fit local school cultures.
the hard work and determination of three retired teachers, WISE
Services has given students across the country the opportunity to
experience a similar "transformation." However, the three could
never have managed to build a 12-member board of directors, an eight-person
advisory board, and a nine-person staff without the support of teachers,
students, and community members who believed in the program. The
testament to the success of the WISE programs will always be the
graduates who help spread the idea to other schools, who serve on
task forces year after year, who mentor new WISE students, and who
work with the students in their fields of interest. The network
of alumni and schools involved in the program drives its success
and will ensure that more students have the opportunity to create
their own senior experiences.
find out how WISE Services can help your school district set up
a program, write, phone or e-mail:
Victor Leviatin, president
29 Old Tarrytown Rd, White Plains, NY 10603