On Thursday, in a tradition shared by many classes of Lumberjacks that came before them, R.A. Long seniors rushed to get their research papers on Jan McIntyre's desk by the afternoon bell. 

The longtime English teacher keeps old photos of frantic students, sprinting down the halls after hammering out that pesky bibliography or hitting spell-check for a fifth time.

But this time was different.

The papers weren't quite as heavy. The bibliographies weren't nearly as long. And the slimmed-down papers were being finished in mid-October. In the past, students completed the paper later in the year, after spending hours with a mentor.

Starting this year, the Longview School District has introduced a new list of requirements for the senior project it requires at both of its high schools. Administrators say the changes will make the senior projects less rushed and more complete and will encourage kids to focus more on their future. But critics say it represents a retreat from past standards at R.A. Long and is aimed at inflating the school's graduation rate.

"I think we're doing a disservice to our students," McIntyre said. "We've eased the rigor. It's not rigorous anymore."

In the past, R.A. Long and Mark Morris high schools have had very different parameters for senior projects. R.A. Long's highlight was an in-depth research paper, while Mark Morris students put together a portfolio that included their best work over four years.

Looking to create a more uniform requirement, the district has fused together pieces from both schools' programs. The result is a four-year "culminating project" that focuses on a student's entire high school career. For R.A. Long, it ramps up the required community service hours. For Mark Morris, it adds a senior research paper.

"I think this represents the best of both schools," said Dana Jones, the district's executive director for leadership and learning.

Diverse traditions

For years, R.A. Long and Mark Morris have required seniors to complete projects that were unique to each school.

For years, students at Mark Morris have begun assembling their senior portfolios as freshmen, collecting their best academic work from each semester with an eye on presenting it as seniors. They immersed themselves in community service and produced resumes and cover letters with a focus on the future.

R.A. Long students spent hours with mentors — often business people or community leaders  while researching a chosen topic. They cranked out research papers that cited at least 10 sources and touched on experiences they gained from their mentor. The paper prepared the seniors for college-level writing.

Many of these requirements remain and some new ones were added.

R.A. Long students now must complete 24 hours of community service over their high school career  a significant jump from the one hour previously required. Now both schools require research and reflective papers. Under the new guidelines, students must earn points for "service to school" by participating in extra-curricular activities, joining sports teams or school clubs, or even finishing the year with perfect attendance.

"One of the great positive changes is the increase in community service hours," said Dennis Weber, president of the Longview teachers' union and a former R.A. Long teacher. "That's a real plus."

Jones feels one of the key elements to the new project is that kids are working on it all four years. If students only do one paper in their senior year, they may have tendency to rush it, she said.

"For a lot of kids it's hurry up and do it fast because you have to do some kind of presentation in a couple weeks so you can check it off to graduate," Jones said.

Better or worse?

McIntyre, who has served as R.A. Long's senior project coordinator since 2002, said the 8- to 12-page paper seniors used to write was both rewarding and challenging.

"I think it's the best thing this school has done for kids over the years," she said. "Sure, they whine about it, but at the end of the process they're proud of themselves."

McIntyre worries the new project doesn't offer that same challenge. She also thinks it falls short of what other schools require, and she wonders whether students will leave RAL adequately prepared for college.

But others point out that the requirements are simply a minimum, and they expect many students will rise above the bar.

"Typically for youngsters, when they do a really good research paper, it ends up being much longer than whatever you put on the minimum requirements," said Mark Morris Principal Rod McHattie, who served on the committee that developed the new guidelines.

R.A. Long Principal Rich Reeves stopped short of evaluating the new project as better or worse, preferring to say that it's "different."

He noted that the senior project is just one prerequisite for graduatation. He mentioned performance on state standardized tests as another.

"The requirements on kids have changed pretty dramatically over the years," Reeves said. "The demands on the kids are greater."

Weber recalled times when some teachers at R.A. Long argued the old senior paper was asking too much of some students.

"There were discussions from teachers that believed it was very appropriate, and others that felt it was too difficult to do," he said.

Statewide requirements

The state now requires all of its high schools to have a culminating project for students to complete.

Schools have a great deal of flexibility in what they can require as part of the project. As a result, the scope and size of the projects vary greatly from school to school.

For example, Fort Vancouver High School students write a 6- to 10-page thesis paper, create a thick portfolio that includes their best work, and give a 10-minute oral presentation. Students in Everett high schools write an argumentative paper of at least five pages in length and a two-page reflective paper.

Local school officials say the biggest challenge is helping current students transition from the old senior formats to the new. About half of R.A. Long's seniors had already chosen a topic and a mentor for their project, and had to scrap those plans, McIntyre said. Reeves said some students in advanced placement classes completed their research paper in their junior years.

Officials also don't expect this year's seniors to complete a four-year portfolio when they haven't been asked to save their best work from the last three years. The new requirements will be phased in, with this year's seniors creating an abbreviated portfolio and completing five hours of community service in addition to the research and reflective papers. This year's freshmen will be the first class that completes the full project.

Reeves said the district and both schools are still working out the kinks.

"As with any project, it will have to change a bit," Reeves said. "There's always things that need to be tweaked."

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