Saturday, November 26, 2005
The Steamboat Springs School District should keep the Senior Odyssey program as a mandatory graduation requirement.
There's no doubt the program is unpopular among some students and parents.
About 150 students this month staged a walkout to protest it. Students and parents have complained about it at school board meetings and on this newspaper's editorial pages for almost two years.
There is little doubt in our minds, however, that the program, which combines experiential and classroom learning in an in-depth, career-oriented final project, is reasonable and beneficial.
Opponents argue Senior Odyssey takes time away from more important studies -- Advanced Placement courses, for example. They argue its requirements are too rigid to be fair and beneficial to all students, and they have lobbied the school board to make it optional, design it to take a semester rather than an academic year or move it to the junior year.
School board members and high school administrators have been willing to hear those complaints, have addressed them, and have adjusted the program when it legitimately needed adjusting.
In August, for example, the board created a process through which students can be exempted if they can show they've already learned what the program aims to teach. That's about as fair as life gets.
High school administrators say it's simply not the case that Senior Odyssey is keeping students from taking Advanced Placement or any other courses. The program may make taking those courses less convenient but not impossible, they argue.
It also is difficult to see how a program largely defined by the fact that it forces students to make their own choices, develop their own ideas and create their own courses of study can be called inflexible.
A lot, perhaps most, of the complaints about Senior Odyssey's lack of benefit comes from people who've not taken the course; students who've yet to and parents who never will.
Most students surveyed after completing the program last year thought more highly of it. Of the 109 seniors polled, 50 percent rated the Senior Project "very valuable." Thirty-four percent rated the project as "somewhat valuable."
Fifty-six percent of the 109 polled said the influence of community mentors who helped them with their projects also was "very valuable."
Such surveys are never an absolutely precise measurement of reality, but anything academic that inspires approval from that many teenagers is probably better, not worse, than the survey indicates.
The survey results and the rest of the controversy may indicate the program needs improvement, but they don't prove it needs to be scrapped directly or indirectly by making it optional.
Senior Odyssey's main sin seems to be that it forces students out of their comfort zones and into situations where they must work a little harder than normal to excel.
It challenges them, in other words.
More than anything, the Senior Odyssey debate illustrates the damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't world in which public educators too often find themselves.