Topsham students cap high school with Capstone projects

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TOPSHAM — Emerson Jerome’s life has been a bit crazy lately.

There are the Advanced Placement courses he needs to take. The prom. Graduation. And on top of that is an expansive project he and all other seniors at Mt. Ararat High School must undertake: Capstone.

While a capstone is literally what forms the top of a building or wall as the final touch, a crowning achievement, it is also the name of the 5-year-old program at the school that marks the culmination of a student’s high school experience.

On Wednesday, Mt. Ararat’s approximately 200 seniors gave presentations on their self-chosen projects to audiences composed of students, school staff and community members. Small panels judged each project to determined whether it passed or failed.

A passed project is a required undertaking in order to graduate, but students who don’t make the cut get a chance to improve their work and present again, according to school Principal Donna Brunette.

“The stones are your education for the 13 years that build up, and the capstone is taking everything you learn all 13 years and doing an independent, self-directed project,” former Principal Craig King said in 2009, when a pilot version of the program was launched.

Brunette expanded on that explanation Wednesday.

“There are a lot of opportunities for kids to learn that are very structured by teachers,” she explained. “And for students to really be lifelong learners, they need to learn to engage independently in a project, and really use a research process, connect with a community mentor, and take on something that they have an interest in.

“So the idea is, how do you provide students with (a chance) to self-select, self-design, a learning opportunity that comes to a point where, whatever their goal was, it may not have been accomplished, but it’s the challenge of the learning process, and what they learned about themselves, that ultimately is the outcome,” the principal added.

Planning and organizational skills are key learning paths, as well as the presentation of the project itself.

“If you think about the state’s guiding principles, which focus on being a creative thinker and things such as that, the overarching idea is, ‘Have you learned how to learn, and can you take that with you?'” Brunette said. “So in the Capstone project, (students) have the opportunity to engage themselves, to find their own resources, to work with a mentor who is not connected with the school at all. And their project … can really be about anything.”

Projects spanned a wide spectrum that included radiology, celiac disease, writing a children’s book, constructing a precision rifle (with the guidance and support of school staff and the school resource police officer), the life of a cosmetologist, art adventures for the elderly, and teaching kindness.

Jerome chose electronic dance music, featuring his alto saxophone.

Like other students, he had watched senior presentations during his early years in high school, and during his junior year started to carve out ideas for what his project would be. His proposal received staff approval last fall after only one edit, enabling him to begin the months of work that went into his Capstone.

“Thinking about a project that I wanted to spend a lot of hours on, and be excited about, and like doing instead of being stressed about, it was definitely music for me,” said the Topsham resident, who has played sax for eight years.

He researched the production of electronic dance music, learning how to blend in his sax skills.

“There was a lot of rehearsing, definitely,” Jerome said.

While he was relieved that one piece of the senior year whirlwind was behind him, Jerome said he also felt a sense of accomplishment from what the exercise taught him. He noted how Capstone aligns with the school’s mission statement, which calls for students to achieve their own unique potential.

And in the end, he said, “I have the potential to learn and play this music, and that’s how it’s going to work out for me. I got an education with something that was my choice.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Sidebar Elements

For her senior year Capstone project presentation Wednesday, Mt. Ararat High School senior Hannah Cooper chose to discuss the career of a cosmetologist.

Emerson Jerome, one of about 200 Mt. Ararat High School students who undertook the senior year Capstone project, researched the production of saxophone-friendly electronic dance music.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.