SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Twenty-one seniors at South Kingstown High School are bravely blazing a new trail for all other classes to follow them. 

Rather than taking part in the traditional senior portfolio class and preparing to stand before a panel of judges, highlighting all that they’ve learned and accomplished over the past four years, these seniors have elected to take on something completely different. Instead, they’re pursuing passions and new projects. 

No two students’ projects will be alike, according to Assistant Principal of Humanities Agnes Pelopida. Currently, the pilot students are working with English Department Chair Christine Mohan on their senior papers. Each paper will be related to, but may not share the exact same focus as, their senior project the following semester, which Social Studies Department Chair Cathy Fogarty will be helping guide students through. 

Teachers and pilot students alike are excited about the idea of taking on new and engaging projects, rather than just having a portfolio class that examines what they’ve already done. For senior Jacques Schold, he’s excited to be doing something different and a little more challenging than a portfolio.

“It’s just them splurging out the stuff they learned over four years and not getting to touch on what they really want to talk about,” he said. “It touches on their learning, but it doesn’t talk about them and who they are as a person.”

While you get to see snippets of people’s interests, Schold said, it’s more of just a showcase of all they’ve accomplished over the past four years.  

This new class will still let students highlight their skills and accomplishments, Fogarty said, but it will open new doors and possibilities for students. 

“The portfolio is a cool reflection of us,” senior Lucas Serafin said, “but once we present it and get our certificate, then what?” 

Serafin, who’s currently working on creating a compost bin in the high school’s garden and looking at ways for public schools to adopt more green policies and practices, believes his project will have a lasting impact for years to come, long after he’s graduated. 

The hope of leaving behind something meaningful once they move on is shared by each of the pilot class students.

Currently, Schold is working to put on a police K9 exhibition show to help raise funds for K9 ballistic vests. The show will not only help raise funds but will better educate members of the public about the important role K9 divisions play within law enforcement. 

Becoming a state trooper, specifically within the K9 division, has been a life-long dream for Schold, and the connections he’s been making with law enforcement thanks to this event, have created terrific networking opportunities. 

As demanding as the project is, Schold said it doesn’t feel like work. 

Senior Jess Macinanti also hopes to go into law enforcement, but this year she’s currently working on a documentary about the struggles and harassment many LBGT high school students face – even within the district. 

Macinanti has already begun administering her own surveys to students and has researching national statistics for her senior paper as well. 

“As I myself am part of it, it’s kind of a personal topic for me,” Macinanti said. “Even just doing the research, it’s hit close to home.”

Although she still has a long way to go to complete her documentary, what she’s learned so far has been hard to stomach.

“I just think that it’s really important for the community to understand that when we say that LGBT students are discriminated against, we’re not kidding,” Macinanti said. “We’re not exaggerating. It’s a real thing, and people don’t take it as seriously as they should. I’m hoping that my documentary will show, ‘Hey, these are kids that you know and they’re being harassed. You have the power to stop that.’”

For students in the LGBT community who are willing to sit in front of a camera, Macinanti hopes their stories will make people confront issues they may have been previously blind to. 

Senior Ella Zalewsky, who’s been helping collect samples on a URI research vessel for the past two summers, will be focusing her project on the importance of protecting local waterways and keeping pollution out of Narragansett Bay. 

Unlike her first summer, where she only aided in the collecting process, this year, Zalewsky began coming back to the lab afterward to help process all of the data. 

“I was definitly learning what I did and did not like involving fieldwork,” she said with a laugh. “Honestly, I love being outside, I love the boat and collecting data.”

Although Zalewsky has always thought of herself as more introverted, she’s enjoyed connecting with researchers out in the field rather than quietly working inside a lab all day. When Zalewsky first set out with her research, she thought she should be writing a full scientific lab report for her senior paper. Over time, though, she decided she’d rather bring her own voice, and maybe a little more clarity than what you’d normally find in a highly technical scientific report, to her paper. 

“I want to spread awareness on how we should be caring more about the quality of the water we’re swimming in,” she said. 

Her experiences with the senior project so far, she said, have been a huge eye-opener when it comes to looking at college majors for next year and what she might want to pursue in life. 

The wide variety of passions and interests among students in the pilot class, and the entire senior class at large, is part of what inspired senior Rachel Sokolow’s own project. Looking at eight fellow classmates she doesn’t know very well, all pursuing a range of different interests from theater to sports, Sokolow hopes a series of profiles and photographs might help capture an image of her senior class. 

“The way I see it, unless you hang out with someone on the weekend and you’re going out with them, you don’t really know anything besides what scratches the surface,” she said. “I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of what my class really is here.”

What she wants to learn most are the defining moments in her classmates’ lives that they believe made them who they are now, at this moment in time. 

Next year, Sokolow hopes to pursue a degree in journalism.

Her friend Serafin also hopes to enter the communications and media field, but he’s long been involved in lots of environmentally focused clubs at school, inspiring him to build a compost bin in the garden.

“It sounds pretty simple,” Serafin said, “but there’s a lot that goes into it.”

He’ll not only be making all the construction decisions on how to build it, but he’ll also be working to educate the entire school community about the benefits and importance of composting. 

Guidance is there when he needs it, but Serafin enjoys being able to make all of his own decisions on this project and the number of options that are available to him. 

Unlike Serafin, who decided to do something close to home, fellow pilot class member Iona Buffum decided to go abroad with her project. This week, she returned from India where she spent time teaching art classes to local students who’d never had it within their curriculum before.

Buffum began teaching art classes to elementary school students only a few years after she graduated primary school herself. Her former art teacher had brought her on after watching her help and instruct her fellow classmates as a child.

Her parents had already had plans to travel to India last week, but Buffum was able to convince them to bring her along when she pitched her idea for her senior project. Once there, she was able to give lessons in drawing and watercolors, and even made slime with a second-grade class.

She plans to give back to the school by selling some of the drawings her students made. Buffum had prompted students to draw something they wanted and was shocked to see that they wanted to end major world issues like deforestation and pollution.

“It’s so crazy that they’re second graders and they’re talking about these huge world issues,” she said. 

With the money she’s raised so far, Buffum had plans of buying fun items for their classrooms. When she asked them what they wanted, though, “they were saying stuff like toilets.”

The school was not fully protected from the elements, she said.  Hallways would flood when it rained and mosquitoes were everywhere. She recalls becoming upset about the conditions students have to face while they’re trying to learn. 

“I think it’s going to be really exciting when I get to do some improvements around the school,” she said. 

Even though the school needs improvements, Buffum’s paper will talk about the importance of art in the classrooms and affording students new activities and opportunities – despite the fact that most people don’t see it as a necessity. 

“In my opinion, art and doing things that are creative, are almost just as important,” she said. “It was so cool seeing these kids’ faces light up when they got to do something different.”

This coming May, all of the juniors will be deciding on what they’d like to do for their senior project topics, Mohan said. They’ll be putting together proposals and selecting mentors to help them through the process in the coming school year. 

Part of the decision process will include a “sign of commitment,” in which students will lay out their plans for the coming year. Similar to this year, some of the students’ projects will be put on display in the library. 

“That kind of creates an energy around the topics and projects,”  Mohan said. “Once people start hearing what other people are doing, for those students who may not have really understood or fully grabbed what they needed to do, they can see what some of the showcase ones were doing.”

The first half of the year will tackle students’ senior papers, but they can also use this time to work on their college essays while they’re in the throws of the college application process. The fluid class structure is also a strong support system for fellow students to bounce ideas and advice off of eachother too, allowing them to thrive, Fogarty said. 

“My project would not be the same without Jack,” Buffum said. “The best part about senior project is that you can just go in there, say your idea, and there’ll be 10 heads around you saying, ‘Okay, but what about this?’”

It makes it a class that students look forward to, Macinanti said, rather than something they dread. Because it’s a pilot class, the teachers may not always have the answers, she said, but students work together to come up with answers and solutions. 

“I think the key words there are collaboration and cooperation,” Macinanti said. “It’s really important to have that in a class like senior paper that’s less rigid and structured.”

“I’m so excited to start next semester,” Fogarty said. 

She’ll not only be helping students with their projects and their presentations but also teaching civics.

The best part, though, in her opinion, is that these projects will all be student-centered, showcasing their passions and accomplishments. 

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