Seniors in charge of own learning

Odyssey projects allow students to work on things that interest them

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Steamboat Springs High School senior Amanda Hul--slander loves the theater, but performing isn't her cup of tea.

"I get on the stage and freak out," Hulslander said Thursday from the high school's dimly lit auditorium. She has found a perfect fit in technical theater, where she can work the soundboard, stage lighting, stage management and other aspects of theater production without having to appear in front of an audience.

"By doing tech I still get to work on and with the theater," she said.

Since her sophomore year, Hulslander has worked on numerous theater productions and concerts. But until now, she's never had the chance to run an entire production herself.

For her senior project, Hulslander is putting on a performing arts showcase that will feature performances from a variety of student vocalists, bands, a jazz ensemble and a one-act play. The experience has been eye-opening, she said.

"I'm definitely learning," Hulslander said. "With this, I have to be in charge. I've always had someone else to answer to."

Hulslander is just one of 140 Steamboat Springs High School seniors who are finding themselves in charge of their own learning through the school's required Senior Odyssey program.

Developed several years ago and implemented as a pilot program during the past two years, Senior Odyssey is now a graduation requirement for all students, beginning with this year's class of 2005. Students can take two paths under the umbrella of the Odyssey program. The first is the careers option, in which students are required to work a job or internship in a field of their choosing. The second path is the experience option, where students work independently throughout the year on their final senior project.

Regardless of which path students take, Odyssey requires all seniors to take a regular class that emphasizes career skills such as resume writing and interviewing. All seniors also are required to plan and complete a detailed final project that they eventually will present to the community. Thesis papers and personal presentations also make up aspects of the Odyssey program. Each senior receives help and mentoring from a community volunteer.

School officials see Odyssey as an opportunity for students to follow their passions and interests while learning real-world skills such as time management and communication.

"It's a capstone experience of everything they've learned," said Gayle Dudley, the high school's Odyssey program coordinator.

Students must select projects that are a "stretch" for them, Dudley said. The projects also must have value to someone other than the student. In many ways, they're also an opportunity for students to give back to the community.

Take, for instance, senior Andrew Zopf. He loves playing poker, but he also is tired of hearing fellow teens complain about a lack of things to do in Routt County. For his senior project, Zopf has organized a Casino Night for local teens. The event, sponsored by the city of Steamboat Springs and Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, is a substance- and alcohol-free event that will be fun for teens, Zopf said. His mentor is Brooke Lachman, the city's teen programs coordinator.

Zopf expects 150 teens to attend Saturday's event, which runs from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Numerous local businesses have donated prizes for the casino games, which include Texas Hold'em poker, blackjack, craps and roulette. Zopf has hired three professional card dealers and rented 12 game tables from a Denver business for the free event.

The experience has been worthwhile, Zopf said.

"It's definitely rigorous in terms of workload," he said. "I didn't realize how many hours would go into this."

The Odyssey workload is significant, but it doesn't ask too much of seniors, Dudley said.

"What we find is the kids who stay on top of it don't have an issue," she said.

No two Odyssey projects should be compared, because each student is challenged in different ways, Dudley said. The projects also tend to expose the strengths of students who might not be successful academically.

All seniors must present their projects and what they learned from them during Senior Boards, which take place May 18. An Odyssey open house is from 5 to 7 p.m. May 25.

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