Projects, vacation, or regular classes? Comparing how NYC private schools approach senior spring


Lucy Peck, Staff Writer

This spring, Dalton student Elizabeth Goldsmith (12) partnered with her friend to find the best bagel in NYC for their senior initiative on Jewish heritage. (The verdict is still out.)

While seniors at Horace Mann continue taking traditional classes until school ends each year in early June, other private schools in NYC offer alternate ways for students to close out their high school career — projects, internships, or even an early start to summer vacation.

Seniors at Dalton, Hackley, and Trevor Day finish their core academic classes in April or May and move to the ‘senior projects’ phase of the year. Similarly, students at Collegiate are permitted to drop core subjects, with the exception of Advanced Placement (AP) classes and graduation requirements, to pursue a ‘senior project.’ At Riverdale, seniors can drop all of their classes to pursue a four or seven week senior project beginning in April or May, and end school a week earlier than other grades. 

Collegiate student Jacob Markman (12) dropped Physics to work with music teachers at the school to compose music, he said. His friends are pursuing a variety of topics in their projects, such as making their own energy drink recipe, he said. Markman enjoys this system because it allows him to pursue something he’s passionate about that he could not during the traditional academic year. 

Only 15 to 20 students out of a grade of 130 students drop all their classes, Riverdale student Parisa Verma (12), who did not do so, said. Seniors want to spend as much time as possible with their friends before the end of the year. “If you’re doing a senior project, it can be kind of isolating because you’re running on your own schedule,” Verma said. “But, if you continue with classes, you have free time with your classmates, and it’s easier to coordinate time spent with friends.”

At Trevor Day, once students return from spring break, they can also pursue senior projects and drop all of their academic classes. The school typically assists students in deciding how they would like to spend this time and connects them to potential opportunities. During the two months, students pursue internships or other opportunities that they are passionate about while maintaining contact with their advisor and filling out a progress report each week. Seniors who complete senior projects also meet back on campus every three weeks for a grade level meeting. 

For his senior project, Trevor Day student Zach Brownstein (12) pursued an internship at an advertising agency for the first month and now attends school in Paris at the École alsacienne. Some of his friends are shadowing doctors at Mount Sinai hospital to prepare for a pre-med track in college. If students do not opt to do a senior project, they remain on campus to take “seminars,” classes which run till the end of the school year, he said. 

Brownstein appreciates Trevor Day’s system since it’s given him time to pursue the things he’s interested in prior to graduation. He chose to attend École alsacienne because it is one of the best schools in France, he said. “I felt like it would be even better preparation than what the States offers in terms of college and workload preparation,” he said. Brownstein also hoped to improve at his native language. “It’s only been three days and my French is already so much better.” 

At Dalton, seniors end classes at the beginning of May and pursue a ‘senior initiative.’ These initiatives can be as time-intensive and significant as the senior wants — some take it seriously, some don’t. “Last year, someone’s project was to refurbish a dirt bike, and I’m pretty sure they just bought a dirt bike and showed a picture of it,” she said. Some of her other friends go hiking everyday, or try to walk the length of New York City. 

Goldsmith admires Dalton’s system since it supports seniors who have “senioritis,” or a lack of academic motivation. “Toward the end of the year, it just felt like not many of us were getting much out of school,” she said. “So, initiatives are an opportunity to let us make good use of the last month or two that we have in a way that’s interesting and tailored to what each of us like to do.”

However, there may be flaws in other schools’ approaches. Many of the seniors who Miller Harris (12) knows at other schools do not actually take advantage of the time provided to them to pursue internships or projects. “A lot of the students that I know with that opportunity do very low-commitment internships and spend most of the time messing around,” he said. “One of my friends is researching the social implications of parks, so he just goes and sits in the park everyday.”

Dean of the Class of 2023 Chidi Asoluka has concerns about students not taking full advantage of time provided to pursue internships or senior projects, he said. When Asoluka taught at the high school Germantown Academy near Philadelphia, seniors would end school early to pursue independent projects. “We could not confirm, really, if all students were learning from these experiences,” he said.“Some students were getting coffee and making copies at a family member’s law office, and I imagine that was great, but I was unsure if they extracted any learning from that.”

While students at HM currently remain in class until the end of the school year, in the past, the school has allowed seniors to drop a major subject (that was not an AP class) to pursue ‘senior initiative projects’ during the last quarter of the year, Head of the Upper Division (UD) Jessica Levenstein said. This program was discontinued in 2019. “It didn’t usually result in students doing anything that felt meaningful, or that made an impact on themselves or the community.” The program also contributed to a cynical outlook on program planning for seniors. “Students would take a class saying ‘I’m definitely going to drop it during the last trimester,’” she said. 

The school currently offers many other opportunities for independent work, like the Independent Study program, Science Research program, Junior Research Paper (JRP), and yearlong papers required for upper-level history classes, that render senior initiative projects unnecessary, Levenstein said. “There are so many places now in the school where you can explore an area of interest for yourself that we didn’t feel we needed senior initiative projects,” she said.

HM’s current system elicits mixed reactions from the school’s seniors. Some students say that the system is taxing since it pushes unmotivated students to continue working, Athena Spencer (12) said. “Most seniors are less motivated at this point because they don’t see as much relevance to their grades, now that the majority of us are completely committed to colleges,” she said. “So, classes tend to start feeling less important and more of an obligation as we get closer to the end of the year.” 

Spencer herself feels a bit of the “senior slump,” she said. She is currently trying to strike a balance between enjoying herself during her last few weeks and continuing to do an appropriate amount of work, she said. “It’s definitely tempting to completely check out, but at the same time it’s extremely difficult to rid yourself of HM’s constant focus on work and grades.”

English teacher Dr. Adam Casdin has observed that it has become more difficult to engage his seniors, he said. “The worst part of [seniors’ disengagement] is that they do not feel joy or release, they feel that they have been burdened by school for three and a half years and are done.” 

Levenstein has also encountered this challenge. “Creating a syllabus for senior spring is a serious challenge because you really can’t count on students to have read that much [outside of class],” she said. Teachers can then rely on activities where work can be generated in class. 

In order to remedy this issue, it falls upon teachers to liven up the second semester for seniors, Casdin said. “It’s on us to design and develop classes that are engaging students in different ways than the traditional one,” he said. 

Levenstein also said that teachers should adjust to a new style of teaching seniors during the second semester. “Instead of coming into class and starting having a discussion with kids who are in no position to have that discussion, instead have an activity plan that everybody can do in the moment, then it’s actually super fun.” 

Over the years, teachers have adjusted their second semester curriculum and teaching styles to curb seniors’ disengagement. In Levenstein’s early years at the school, the level of senior disengagement was much greater than it is now, with many seniors expressing dissatisfaction by cutting class or being disrespectful or defying the expectations in the classroom, she said. “We just don’t see that that much probably because teachers have become really creative about how to structure the end of the senior year, so there’s less for seniors to push back against.”

Asoluka has adopted this approach in his English elective, The New Community Project. In the spring, the class shifts to a project phase where students work in class to craft and execute a project for the last two months of the year, he said. “We remove the traditional ‘read something, talk about it, and write something’ model and it becomes more about application.” 

Many of Harris’ classes have also switched to project-based learning. In his Math Seminar class, Harris is working in a group to build a recommendation model for music. This project appealed to Harris since he is able to focus on something he’s interested in without having to complete much work outside of school. 

Students also enjoy the school’s current system because it provides seniors with time to socialize before graduation. Harris enjoys spending time with friends, now that the pressure of grades has been lifted, he said. “I never come to school late or leave school early, just so I can make sure I see my friends.”

Harris thinks the last few months on campus have allowed for grade bonding. He likes senior traditions like senior backpacks, senior skip day, and college t-shirt day, he said. “These are all activities that allow us to have time with our friends and have fun.” 

If the school were to give seniors an option to go off campus to pursue internships, Levenstein has a hunch that many would choose to stay. Staying on campus and remaining in classes until the end of the year allows seniors to spend time with friends with much of the stress of grades removed, Levenstein said. “They enjoy the things they love about school without feeling hampered by the things they don’t love about school,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”