As the end of high school draws near, the minds of many high school seniors tend to drift. Students once motivated by tangible K-12 goals like getting into college may have few—if any—left to attain. For seniors who’ve always struggled to stay engaged in school, the last semester can feel like an interminable slog. This common phenomenon, dubbed senioritis, is no picnic for their teachers, either.
“Suddenly it’s like teaching kindergarten. No one’s in their seat. Half of them are absent. No one’s prepared,” observed Meghan Mathis, an associate editor at WeAreTeachers and a former language arts teacher, in a blog post. “It’s enough to make even the most seasoned educator want to scream.”
The administration at one school in Baltimore believes it has managed to successfully circumvent this seemingly inevitable problem. At Friends School of Baltimore, a private school of approximately 850 students in preK-12, 12th graders take on full-time internships for the month of May.
“We came up with this as a way to keep seniors focused on something,” said Jon Garman, the school’s interim upper school principal.
The school began the internship program around 30 years ago. Initially, it was voluntary. But it has become a tradition for the school’s seniors. Although the internship is not required for graduation, all of the seniors now choose to do it, according to Garman, who is in his 40th year at the school.
In recent years, the goal of providing a focus for seniors has taken on a greater sense of urgency, said Garman. That’s due to an uptick in “early decision” college admissions, which allow students to learn whether they’ve been accepted to a college or university as early as December of their senior year.
“This [the internship] gives them something to continue to shoot for,” Garman said. “We aim for a really focused experience that gives students exposure to something in a way you wouldn’t necessarily get in high school.”
Welcoming real-world experience
Friends senior Anna Trudeau has found that to be true in her internship.
She’s spending her weekdays in a laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Department of Physiology where she’s assisting a researcher in his quest to better understand Timothy syndrome, a rare genetic condition that can be life-threatening.
“I’ve always been interested in electrophysiology,” said Trudeau, whose father is a professor of physiology at the medical school. This internship appealed to her, she said, because it would allow her to continue learning how to “patch clamp,” a sophisticated electrophysiological technique to which she was introduced in a former internship.
The 18-year-old eagerly described her work in the lab patch clamping cells, which involves sharpening thin tubes of glass to create a hollow needle that eventually pokes the cell membrane and sends a voltage through it, activating calcium ion channels.
“If we can force open a calcium channel with voltage we can use that information to determine the proper method of treating cardiac arrhythmias, an irregular heart contraction [and a common symptom among people with Timothy syndrome],” explained Trudeau.
She said her internship will help her in the fall when she enrolls in a special program at the University of Maryland that allows undergraduate students the somewhat rare opportunity to gain experience working in a laboratory. Trudeau also sees it as a way to jump-start her career. “I will probably work in a lab for the rest of my life. Maybe I’ll even have my own lab,” she said.
For now, Trudeau said she’s happy to be working in a laboratory at her own pace all month. “I’d rather be here than in class,” she said. “If I were still in school, I would be so bored. I would find everything pointless.”
Not every internship experience proves a perfect match for a future career, but that doesn’t necessarily make it less rewarding, as Friends senior Benjamin Kondner has discovered.
Kondner has always liked math. So when it came time for him to choose an internship site, he sought out a former classmate’s father who works at a private wealth management firm who agreed to take him on as an intern.
Every weekday morning this month, Kondner has boarded a train from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., where he’s observed the firm’s behind-the-scenes operations.
“Now I know what it’s like to be in this environment,” said Kondner. “All the clients are different. They [advisers] have to solve a puzzle, figure out what’s best for each client.”
While Kondner said he’s found the environment engaging, the internship has helped him realize wealth management is probably not the path he’ll pursue after college.
“I thought it would be more math-oriented,” he said. “It might not be for me, but it’s still been an amazing experience.”
Part of that experience, he admits, is an introduction to the fatigue of working life. He has an hourlong train ride into the Washington office, then back again, after which he heads to the lacrosse field for a game or practice.
“All this commuting,” he said. “It takes so much energy out of you.”
It’s all part of the monthlong, 35 hour-per-week internship, a standard timeframe deliberately set by the school to create a more substantive opportunity, according to Garman.
It’s just one of many intentional aspects of the internship. Students are also required to write in a journal weekly to reflect on their experience. After the internship ends, each student makes a presentation at school to students and staff.
But the preparation work begins long before the actual internship.
Several months in advance, students learn about the internship program, and begin zeroing in on possible opportunities and reaching out to prospective organizations. They pull from lists of businesses that have welcomed student interns previously, as well as a list of former alumni who have expressed willingness to serve as mentors. Access to a broad network of prospective internship businesses and mentors—from alumni to parent connections—helps make the internship possible, as does the small size of the senior class of 104 students.
“We give them a lot of support and ideas,” said Garman, explaining that class meetings about the experience start in the fall, followed by meetings with individual students to help shape plans. Every project must receive staff approval.
“Some kids have said: ‘I’d like to write an opera, or a couple short stories.’ They have to present those ideas, too,” Garman said. “And we have to decide: How much flexibility do we want to give the students?”
Placements have varied over the years.
“I’ve had students who’ve watched surgeries, and those who’ve worked in bakeries,” Garman said. “We recommend they continue with something that is really important to them, or do something they’ve never thought of before, or develop something they’ve just dipped their toes into.”
Regardless of where they land, students say it’s generally preferable to staying in school.
“They’re very excited to end classes,” Garman said, “and to do something more adult.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2023 edition of Education Week as The May Internship: Can It Help Schools Cure Senioritis?