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Dressed in a suit jacket and tie and with resume in hand, Jake Davis walked into the Kelso High School gym Wednesday for an interview with a lot riding on the outcome.

For 15 minutes, two community volunteers asked the senior questions about life after high school: What are you post-graduation goals? What steps have you taken to meet them? What were your two most valuable courses at KHS, and how did they prepare you for your future?

Davis, 17, was one of about 90 seniors this trimester to complete an exit interview as part of a new graduation requirement at KHS. This June, all 330 seniors must complete an exit interview like his to graduate.

The interviews are included in the class grade for American Government and Civics, a graduation requirement. Students get graded on appearance, greeting, performance, closing and the content of their interview. Students who fail must schedule a makeup interview, said Melissa Boudreau, career and technical education director. The interview must be successfully completed before the student can get a diploma.

Boudreau said it “pushes the boundaries of what students are used to,” but most students leave the interviews proud of their answers and eager to read the interviewers’ comments and grades.

The exit interviews are unique in the state, officials say.

“We did some Googling to borrow some ideas as we were thinking about this, but there wasn’t really anything out there,” Boudreau said. “

The interviews replace senior presentations, in which students recapped their high school careers and their mandatory, 20-hour community service projects using PowerPoint, Boudreau said. Some teachers said those presentations lacked rigor, Boudreau said.

“It was canned presentations ... and a lot of times the information was kind of spoon-fed to them,” Boudreau said.

Boudreau said the exit interviews push students to look back on high school in a more meaningful way. The interviewers ask about 10 questions that guide students to reflect on their high school experience.

“We’ve given them a list of questions they might be asked, so they can get an idea of what to expect, but they don’t know exactly which ones of those questions they will be asked,” Boudreau said. “The interview puts them on the spot to really reflect on what they’ve done in high school and how that relates to their post-secondary plans.”

For Jake Davis, the reflection was another first.

“I’ve looked back socially, but this is my first time reflecting on academics,” Davis said. “It helped me realize how much I’ve changed and the growth this school helped me with.”

The interviews are also a response to local employers, who have commented that students don’t have adequate interview practice, Boudreau said.

“We heard very loud and clear that students needed more practice with those interview skills, so we wanted to meet that need in a meaningful way for our students,” Boudreau said.

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Jane Gerdon, a retired Huntington Middle School teacher who volunteered as an interviewer Wednesday, said she enjoyed hearing the students’ plans for the future. She said the plans seemed more diverse than generations ago.

“It’s so cool to see that they have goals they are reaching for,” Gerdon said.

In his interview, Davis shared his plans to become a psychiatrist. He cited psychology as the most influential course he took in high school.

“I like that there’s so many options, so you can explore what you want to do in life, but my psychology class really drew me in,” Davis said.

Other students’ plans covered a wide range, including attending college, seeking trades apprenticeships and going straight into the workforce. One student, Elizabeth Whobrey, wore her National Guard uniform to her interview.

“I plan on being in the military for 20-plus years. After my eight years in the Guard, I plan on re-enlisting as active duty to become an officer,” said Whobrey, 18.

Debbie Rock, high school librarian and another interviewer, said she liked that the school is “taking a new direction” with the senior projects. She said the interviews are more engaging than the presentations were, and they are more beneficial to students.

“I think this is a great experience for the seniors because it gives them great practice for how they have to handle any interview in life,” Rock said.

Students were expected to dress and act professionally, and Boudreau and the other career office staff coached students to shake hands with the volunteers at the start and finish of their interview. Students even stopped by a thank-you card table, signing notes to practice following up with an interview.

The students will later receive comments from the volunteers that highlight their strengths and provide tips for future interviews.

Though many admitted the idea of an interview made them nervous, the students said they preferred the new method to the old PowerPoint presentations. The conversational aspect of the interview relieved some pressure, Makenzie Stephenson said.

“The volunteers were really nice and they were really encouraging,” she said. “The interview became more of a conversation, not like a presentation ... and it makes it seem like less of a big deal.”

But Stephenson was still aware of the seriousness of the interview, especially considering that her graduation hinged on it, she said. She said she spent several hours preparing by going over her answers to the list of potential questions with her friends.

Boudreau said students told her that “they liked that they were a little bit nervous stepping into the interviews.”

“Students are saying it’s not as scary as they thought it would be,” Boudreau said. “They said the nerve part gets to them, but they are very honored to be able to answer those personal questions.”

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