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Projects up in the air

Board of Education considers the future of Senior Projects

Beaufort County school students likely will still be required to complete Senior Projects in the county’s public schools, but some aspects of those projects may be changed.

That was the consensus of members of the Beaufort County Board of Education who met Monday to talk about several academic policies including those that affect Senior Projects, exemption from exams, requirements for promotion and graduation and grade point averages.

Principals from schools throughout the county also attended the meeting to discuss the policies with the board.

The board members were given results of surveys of students, parents and school faculty and administrators on the issues and recently attended meetings at schools throughout the county to hear from principals, teachers and staff members on the issues.

While the board took no action on any of the policies, its members offered opinions on the issues in order to frame future debate.

They agreed that some of the policies needed to be modified but some should remain in place as written.

Much of the discussion Monday concerned the continuation of the Senior Project program.

About three years ago, Beaufort County Schools began requiring its students to complete Senior Projects as part of their English IV or other senior English classes in advance of implementation of an N.C. Board of Education requirement that students complete a so-called “graduation project” to earn a high-school diploma, according to Patrick Abele, executive director for learning services for Beaufort County Schools.

But in 2010, the N.C. General Assembly reversed the state school board requirement for such a project and instead left its implementation to the discretion of local school boards.

Senior Projects are intended to give students opportunities to explore topics that are unfamiliar to them and develop new skills. A Senior Project has four components: a research paper exploring some aspect of a student’s chosen topic, a portfolio documenting the student’s work, a tangible or intangible product related to the student’s research paper and an oral presentation before a panel of judges.

Most of the students responding to a Beaufort County Schools survey about the Senior Project agreed it is worthwhile.

Of 57 students who responded to the survey, 65 percent said the skills which a Senior Project requires are important or very important to their success as adults, and 80 percent said their overall experience with the project was positive or very positive.

Similarly, 54.3 percent of 81 high-school teachers and administrators who responded to a survey on the same issue said the program should continue in its current form or with modifications.

Board Chairman Robert Belcher said some English IV teachers are concerned such projects posed a significant burden on them and wanted help from other faculty members in directing the projects.

“I heard overwhelmingly that this project overworks our English IV teachers and they want help with it,” he said. “I see this project as being valuable. It just needs some modification.”

Board member Terry Williams said some teachers reported losing “two to three weeks of class time” implementing some aspects of Senior Projects.

Other discussion Monday concerned aspects of a school policy governing progress reports and instructional feedback.

Board members and principals attending the meeting agreed the schools needed to modify a section of the policy that stipulates that “the lowest average obtained by students will be 60.”

Some school leaders said that giving a student a 60 instead of a lower grade scored on a test gives the student the opportunity to improve his or her grade and, ultimately, pass the course.

“A child who starts with a 30 is not going to be able to turn it on and do the kind of work need to pass,” Superintendent Don Phipps told the board. “A 60 gives the child the opportunity to pull the grade up.”

Southside High School Principal Rick Anderson told the board that teachers often become frustrated when students do well at the start of the semester and then don’t work as hard because they know the minimum grade they can get is a 60.

Other principals agreed.

“It’s hard to teach accountability when there’s something in place that limits that accountability,” said Washington High School Principal Russell Holloman.

Board members generally agreed the policy needs to be changed.

But they generally agreed that policies governing attendance requirements remain as written.

Currently, students in kindergarten through eighth grade cannot miss more than 20 days of school while high-school students cannot miss more than eight days of school in order to be promoted to the next grade.

The policy also includes provisions for appeals of the attendance requirement.

The board is expected to continue its discussion of these policies in the coming weeks.

In other action, the board unanimously approved a request by members of the Washington High School wrestling team to attend a state wrestling tournament.

Board members Barbara Boyd-Williams and Mike Isbell were absent from the meeting.