Are Students Working Too Hard for a High School Diploma?

Students and school districts weigh the costs and benefits of capstone projects.

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Arrupe Jesuit senior Estefany Hernandez eyes Dieter the dog's oxygen level for her school job.

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Earning a high school diploma this spring is going to take just a little more effort for students in Maine. This is the first year that all public high schools in the Pine Tree State are requiring seniors to complete a college application to graduate. It's an effort aimed at boosting the number of students who attend two- and four-year colleges in the state with the lowest college degree attainment rate in New England. Already the requirement has caused some anxiety among parents of students with disabilities and other parents who are worried that applying to college could lead their kids away from home.

Another, more immediate worry for these high school students and their families: Is it one task too much? While Maine is the only state to pass such legislation requiring students to apply to college (admittedly, not the most onerous assignment), many high schools across the country are making students complete similar—and often more time-consuming—extracurricular projects in order to get their diploma. These tasks are intended to boost the teenagers' learning experiences, but they also raise the question of how much work students can handle.

Some education consultants do say that such additional requirements, particularly capstone projects at competitive high schools, make it harder for students to distinguish themselves from their peers when applying to selective colleges. If everyone has to do a special project, none of the projects are really special, notes Steven Goodman, an educational consultant in the Washington, D.C., area who has seen that happen at schools that require all students to perform community service. There is also a danger that struggling students will feel overwhelmed by the additional work and drop out.

Gordon Siu, now a sophomore at Yale University, was indeed in danger of failing his senior year at Bonita Vista High School in Chula Vista, Calif., because his capstone project fell short of expectations. Siu and the other seniors in the Sweetwater Union High School District had to put together portfolios with samples of their coursework and write essays reflecting on their high school experience. They also had to do presentations before a panel of administrators, teachers, community leaders, and student peers.

Band-aid. Siu complained that the portfolios took time away from studying for classes and Advanced Placement tests and that, in many instances, students slapped together their portfolios in a hurry and still passed. To prove his point, Siu turned in a satirical portfolio with an essay taking aim at his high school principal for a letter she had written. (The stunt didn't go over well with the judges, and Siu had to resubmit the portfolio.) In 2005, after several protests, a divided school board decided to drop the capstone project as a graduation requirement.

"I just think they were trying to slap a band-aid on four years of bad teaching and say, 'This is a rigorous test that shows students are prepared for the world,' " Siu says. District officials say most students found the experience rewarding.

But, of course, there's also evidence that asking more of high school students can produce positive results. For example, a study conducted for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation credits a mandatory work-study program at Arrupe Jesuit High School in Denver for giving students more focus and a can-do attitude. The private school—part of a network of 19 academies in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere—enrolls 278 students, many of them from low-income neighborhoods. Last year, all 47 seniors graduated with acceptance letters from two- and four-year colleges.

To earn a diploma, students have to work in professional settings all four years they are in high school. They work one day a week in banks, law firms, veterinarians' offices, and other businesses downtown, performing office support duties. Their hourly earnings also help cover the $7,600 in annual tuition at the school. To help students make up for lost classroom time, the school stays open late and has a longer academic year. By their senior year, all students must apply to at least three colleges. "Working gave us a sense of what it means to be responsible," says Oscar Lomeli, a graduate of Arrupe who is now studying business at Regis University in Denver. "I kinda bragged about it to my friends: 'I'm 14, and I work at a law firm.' "