The end of an Odyssey

Seniors finish projects in program's last year

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When a longtime boyfriend cheated on her, Steamboat Springs High School senior Nicole Curd found an outlet for her emotions that she hopes will lead to a career.

"That was the first song I ever wrote," she said of "Lies," a song she performed April 10 at Mahogany Ridge Brewery and Grill in downtown Steamboat Springs. Nicole sang in front of friends, family, co-workers and total strangers, displaying feelings that, until that night, had been strictly personal.

"I've been performing since the fifth grade, but that was the first time anyone had ever heard my own songs," she said.

The performance was part of Curd's senior project, the culmination of a yearlong class called Senior Odyssey that nearly 150 high school seniors must pass to graduate June 3.

Odyssey includes a Careers class in the fall and Senior Experience in the spring, when students work independently to complete a large-scale, outside-the-classroom project of their own choice and design.

The projects are as varied as the interests of teenagers.

The Class of 2006 has trained horses; built a motorcycle engine; recorded, edited and produced CDs of their own music; conducted support groups for children of alcoholic parents; redesigned the high school's Web site; hosted "Bite of the Boat," which raised $3,000 for adults with disabilities; and much more.

Seniors present their projects to a panel of judges May 24, meaning that the home stretch for completion is right now. Evidence can be seen across Steamboat. Maybe you've noticed Ann Barney's visual display at Bud Werner Memorial Library, or maybe your child took Spanish classes at Strawberry Park Elementary School from senior Jen Rose.

Maybe you saw Curd perform a couple weeks ago. Maybe while there, you donated to VH1's "Save the Music" fund, which gives money to music programs at inner-city schools.

And maybe while there, you saw the first step toward a dream.

"I'm moving to L.A. next year to become a singer," Nicole said Thursday. "College was never in the cards for me. I didn't like the senior project at first, but doing it really gave me structure. I learned a lot about myself."

Self-exploration is a primary goal of the Senior Project -- many students work in areas they hope to continue in college or a career.

At the high school Thursday, principal Mike Knezevich said that future classes will have to foster that exploration in other ways -- because of a change in course status and resulting low enrollment, he said, Senior Experience will not be offered next year.

An epic Odyssey debate

Knezevich has said that since its inception, the Senior Odyssey class has spurred more public debate than any other class he can recall. In its second year as a required course, Odyssey was the hot-button educational issue in Steamboat for much of November, December and January.

On the morning of Nov. 10, about 100 students -- mostly seniors -- walked out of school in the middle of classes to protest Odyssey as a requirement. Students that day said the class focused too narrowly on college preparation and should be optional.

Throughout the fall, a committee composed of school district officials and community members examined graduation requirements for the high school, especially Odyssey. The committee held several well-attended public forums and examined student surveys.

"For some students, Senior Odyssey may be exactly what they need senior year, and for others, it may not," parent Brenda Rupnow said at a Dec. 7 forum. "I would like to see this committee make options for these students."

At a Dec. 20 meeting of the committee, Knezevich and Odyssey teachers proposed that Odyssey become one of more than 15 electives offered to students to fulfill their Career and Technology requirement at the high school. Although the proposal surprised many committee members -- including Steamboat Springs Middle School principal Tim Bishop, who said the proposal was a response to pressure and not in the "heart of hearts" of Knezevich or Odyssey teachers -- the committee adopted it and the Steamboat Springs School Board made the class an elective Jan. 23.

The fallout, Knezevich said Thursday, has been that not enough students signed up for Senior Experience to make it viable next year.

"We can't teach every class," he said. "We just don't have the numbers to make it go. It's pretty disappointing, quite honestly."

Community connection

To complete their senior projects, every student works with an adult mentor from Routt County. When Jake Epley, 18, decided to conduct a weight-lifting competition for high school students -- they pulled a Ford Excursion and flipped tires -- he enlisted the help of personal trainer Mike McCannon. Epley is creating a DVD of the competition to show project judges next month.

Local musician Tom Schwall accompanied Curd on stage at Mahogany Ridge, playing guitar while she sang.

Knezevich said those relationships will be missed next year.

"One of the most disappointing things is that we're losing the connection kids make with their mentors," he said. "We have to hope that the best parts of the class get picked up in other parts of the curriculum."

Odyssey teacher Kim Mayer said the class teaches many intangibles -- responsibility, scheduling, creativity, independence and community interaction -- that students might not get in other classes. The senior project requires students to submit a proposal, plan, essays, self-evaluation and the presentation to judges -- all in addition to the project.

For Joel Graham, 18, the project required approval from superintendent Donna Howell and the School Board. The founder of the high school's Gay Straight Alliance, Graham is organizing a day of silence at the school to protest anti-gay discrimination.

"I just wanted to make sure everything was covered," he said about his presentation to Howell.

Graham said he expects as many as 60 people to participate in the day of silence next month.

Student Bill Nowak, 17, said he hopes to be a police officer and is organizing a shooting contest for his project.

Business and Odyssey teacher Julie Brownell said the independence inspires many students to "really push themselves" with their projects.

"They don't have a teacher or parent telling them what to do," Brownell said. "That's where the transition to real life comes in."

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