“Any high school senior planning to go to college has a hard time focusing on regular schoolwork in the spring,” Head Librarian and former Senior Spring Project (SSP) Coordinator Sandy Dow said.
Fifty-two years ago in her Buckingham Letter dated fall 1965, the program’s inaugural year, Buckingham School Head Elizabeth Stowe expressed a similar sentiment, saying the program she created was “originally planned specifically to eliminate the spring term doldrums suffered by many twelfth grades, when college applications have been mailed in mid-January and acceptance letters are not due until mid-April.”
While the rationale behind its creation still holds today, SSP has evolved from an optional program to a graduation necessity, seeing both its restrictions and requirements change.
SSP runs during the spring season—this year, March 27 to May 25, though for individual students the end date may vary depending on their commitments—and allows seniors to design their own weekly schedule. They must each log 40 hours, loosely mimicking a typical 9-to-5 work week. They must also write two essays, a two-page and six-page reflection due at the end of the second and last week, respectively, on their SSP experiences; read a book that is relevant to any of their previous high school classes or to their project; attend class meetings every Friday; and make a senior tile, a school tradition in which seniors create their own ceramic piece to leave an artful mark on the walls of the school.
A handbook filled with guidelines, restrictions, and advice helps seniors create their plans. Seniors also choose a mentor, a teacher they consistently consult with while conceiving and executing their projects, and their proposals must meet the approval of the SSP Committee, comprised of a dozen faculty members who review and vet them in early February.
“One of the purposes of SSP is to afford seniors an opportunity to undertake an internship or pursue an interest in a sustained manner for a period of time,” SSP Coordinator Ross Clark said.
In her 1965 letter, Ms. Stowe celebrated that benefit among others, writing, “This experimental program [SSP] not only provided a constructive and vital last term, but in a larger sense each girl learned something of her own interests and limitations in the world outside the school where for years she had seen herself only in relation to her classmates.”
It is unclear when SSP actually became a graduation requirement, but it was listed as one in the 1991–1992 school catalogue. Linda Kaufman, who formerly headed SSP and is now retired, speculated that the switch to list SSP as a requirement stemmed from the new Head of School Mary Newman’s desire to clarify the status of the program.
In addition to pursuing off-campus activities such as unpaid internships and community service opportunities, seniors can use SSP to stay on campus by participating in mini-courses—like Fashion Design, ’60s film, Life Skills 101, and Scrabble—or by continuing with AP courses or school sports. Varsity sports earn 12 hours of credit, while sub-varsity sports earn 10 hours and team manager positions earn six hours, in the 40-hour program.
As SSP has expanded, the restrictions have been refined. Ms. Dow, who held the role of SSP coordinator for the 14 years before Mr. Clark, said that on her watch the program adopted stricter limitations with respect to weather, accountability, and traveling.
In 1999 or 2000, she said, two seniors had trouble hiking the northern part of the Appalachian Trail during a very rainy spring. It was one example that contributed to the SSP Committee decision that, notwithstanding school sports, seniors could not count hours for weather-dependent activities.
During her tenure as SSP Coordinator, Ms. Dow, with the aid of the committee, created the SSP fair so that seniors could be accountable for their projects and share them projects with underclassmen, she said.
Before 9/11, overseas traveling was less restricted. Since then, however, Ms. Dow explained how it was important that students be appropriately supervised at all times, as attitudes toward Americans have become less predictable.
Nowadays students must also be sure to schedule high-school appropriate activities that are educative in some way, Ms. Dow added. Thus bowling, billiards, and bartending are banned from SSP programs.
When Mr. Clark took over as SSP coordinator in 2013, the committee mandated the following year that senior projects attend to at least one of the school’s core values—honor, scholarship, or kindness. The hope, he said, was to encourage seniors to reflect on their time at the school and the values they hold.
Though SSP is designed to allow seniors to have an enjoyable last few months of high school, if seniors fail to meet their academic responsibilities prior to or during SSP, they may be forced to continue a regular academic schedule or they may be unable to graduate.
Ms. Dow stressed that if students are thoughtful, they can do almost anything. For example, one senior was able to get an internship with Dreamworks in Los Angeles after volunteering at a Boston studio acquired by Dreamworks. As program facilitators learn from past mistakes and each spring starts anew, she added, improvements to SSP are continually underway.
“Regardless of the restrictions and rules we adults have put on it, there is one universal truth about SSP,” Ms. Dow said. “Kids get out of it what they put into it.”
-— Trevor Khanna