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Published in Print: April 1, 2001, as The Fourth-Year Itch

The Fourth-Year Itch

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Many 12th graders spend their last months of high school daydreaming.
—David Kidd

Ashley Cullum used to be a dedicated, straight-A student. Now, she says, “Every single thing about high school is getting annoying.” Cullum has succumbed to senioritis, and she’s not the lone victim at Robinson High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Everything’s winding down for seniors. The valedictorian has been chosen, the excitement of college-bound students is palpable, and classes— well, students confess that they’re of little use now. It sounds like an old- fashioned case of June fever—except that it’s only February. And some kids have been slacking off for months already.

“I feel I’m about to not be controlled, and they’re controlling me,” says Cullum, who was accepted into college in December. Like many of her peers, she has been skipping classes and not paying attention. Her classmate Matt Morgan, who’s won a football scholarship to the College of William and Mary, also admits he’s just coasting. “Regardless of what grades I get, I’m gone” come spring, he says.

Cullum and Morgan didn’t anticipate feeling so restless this year, but they claim teachers have fed their apathy bug. “Teachers expect us to slack off and to not do anything. They don’t even try to make us more motivated,” says Cullum. “They cater to our senioritis.” Nancy Faust Sizer, an author and educator in Massachusetts who is writing a book about the senior year, agrees. “The whole notion that you’re supposed to slow down and not engage in school in senior year [has] become a cultural imperative,” she says.

And senioritis is hitting students sooner than in the past as a growing number apply early to schools, in November, and receive admissions verdicts in December or January. Even students who apply under stan-dard deadlines—mailing applications in January and receiving decisions late March to early April—tend to think their second-semester grades don’t matter. Although colleges threaten to revoke acceptance if a stu-dent’s grades slip, most rarely follow through. In 27 years, says Joyce Elliott, a Robinson teacher, “I’ve never seen colleges back down.” It’s no wonder, then, that many students view senior year “as a right to take it easy, not, ‘This is my segue to the real world.’ It’s the antithesis of what should be their mind-set,” she says.

Certainly, seniors have a lot on their minds: In a few months, they may move away from home for the first time to go to college or to start a job; they’ll be leaving behind friends and a familiar world. But American students can’t afford to lose half a year of high school. According to the Department of Education, as many as 50 percent of all students who go to college are insufficiently prepared and have to take remedial courses. More than a quarter of the freshmen at four-year colleges and nearly half of those at two-year institutions drop out before becoming sophomores.

But a 30-member panel is working on the problem. For the past 12 months, the National Commission on the High School Senior Year has brought together educators, policymakers, teachers, and students to ex-amine 12th grade curricula and seniors’ transitions to college, work, and adult life. The commission—the first to focus solely on the senior year—will publish a final report in June recommending changes to the current K-12 structure designed to make 12th grade more productive. The goal, says Sizer, who serves on the panel, is for students to no longer “think of senior year as a trip to Sarasota where [they’re] sitting on the beach.”

“It’s our contention that seniors are the walking dead,” says Larry Rehage, a Winnetka, Illinois, teacher who oversees an anti-senioritis project that’s the kind of effort the commission is studying. Other programs include special classes, study trips, and professional internships. Some schools have even tried cash prizes. All the projects share the mutual goal of combating boredom and indifference. But they’re also about something much bigger—the potential to transform the role of school in American society.

At Rehage’s New Trier High School, almost 99 percent of its students graduate, and 90 percent go on to four-year colleges. About nine years ago, teachers came up with a plan to keep kids engaged during their last, fidgety months there. Students research and design a project—shadowing a police officer, for example, formatting music at a radio station, or remodeling a basement—and spend all of May outside the classroom implementing it with the help of mentors. “It was hard at first for [teachers] to accept the proposal to end their curriculum in April,” says Rehage. “They had reservations about lost class time.” But now teachers are on board, and the project, which isn’t mandatory but must be completed if students choose the option, attracts 15 to 20 percent of seniors. “It’s so rewarding to see them discovering they have something to contribute beyond their peers, out there in the adult world,” says Rehage.

At Eastern Tech High School, a magnet school in Baltimore, seniors complete a portfolio they’ve filled since 9th grade with tests, transcripts, papers— “things they’re proud of,” says Harry Cook, who helps run the program. They also work on a mandatory research project. Generally, they write a 20-page paper and create a video, brochure, or survey—something tangible. One year, a student studied the lighting system in the school and uncovered a problem. “The information was passed on to the county,” says Cook. “I don’t know if the project was directly responsible, but they changed a lot of lights.” The program culminates at the end of the year, when seniors compete against each other for a $1,000 prize donated by Verizon Communications Inc. for the most creative and professional project. The work “keeps kids occupied,” says Cook. “They don’t have time to think about senioritis.”

But the majority of the nation’s schools don’t offer senior projects, and most teachers are left to devise their own remedies for the senior slump. Cheryl Flaherty, a French teacher at Framingham High School in Framingham, Massachusetts, chooses to teach more tedious topics, such as French grammar, at the beginning of the year and leads less taxing activities second semester. But she’s also tougher on seniors after the Christmas break. “It’s extremely frustrating, even if it’s a few kids” who act up in class, she says. “It’s hard for [teachers], too. We have to get through all the material. I stay firm and consistent. I have to not let myself succumb to them.” Flaherty says many students’ grades slip second semester “partly because they’re not doing as much and partly because I’m being more strict.”

Senior-year reformers say the key to keeping kids engaged until the very last day is getting them to connect their schoolwork to their life goals—and the earlier the better. As former math teacher Vicki Lukich puts it, “I knew it would be useful, but they didn’t.” Now the school improvement coordinator at David Douglas High School in Portland, Oregon, Lukich says her school offers a Certificate of Advanced Mastery program, so “we don’t have to convince them anymore.” Students entering the school choose a specific career pathway, such as health sciences, business, or communications. (They’re free to change their minds until their junior year.) “They become real owners of their path,” says Lukich. In addition to core classes like English and math, in which they must demonstrate a basic proficiency to graduate, students take career-related courses as juniors and seniors. Then they write a research paper and complete a project or internship in their field. “CAM is the carrot at the end of the line for kids. It keeps them motivated,” says Lukich. The Oregon school board intends to require high schools across the state to offer CAM by the 2004-05 school year.

Lukich believes preparation for life after high school should begin no later than 8th or 9th grade. Sizer goes even further, suggesting that discussions start in kindergarten and not stop. At New Trier, advisers practice senioritis- prevention by meeting with small groups of students for 25 minutes a day throughout all four years of high school. “We’re continually asking and probing kids, ‘What do you want to learn about?’ and the thing you stop asking at age 8 or 9—‘What do you want to be?’ ” says Rehage.

But some senior-year reformers believe even more conventions need to be broken to keep American high schoolers focused until the end. Elliott argues that students should be able to demonstrate that they’re prepared to move into the real world after high school. If they’re not, she says: “There shouldn’t be anything wrong with a second senior year. There shouldn’t be a stigma attached to that. I would like to have enough time and flexibility so everyone doesn’t have to do the exact same thing.”

Larry Rehage agrees. “I think we’re going to look back on 20th-century education and wonder, whoever had the notion of putting all people in the same grade?”

Vol. 12, Issue 7, Pages 12-15

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