Senior Exhibition Program Wins Edward E. Ford Grant

Thacher launches consortium to share capstone project best practices.
After more than two decades of asking Thacher seniors to pursue a line of academic inquiry and then share their findings with the community, the Senior Exhibition program is getting a chance to do the same. Last spring, Thacher received word that it had won a prestigious Edward E. Ford Educational Leadership Grant. The $250,000 award (matched this fall by two anonymous loyal Thacher donors) paves the way for Thacher to create a forum in which other high schools can share and develop their own senior capstone experiences. 

Called the Capstone Consortium, this online forum will serve as a community hub and an archive of information and discussions related to senior capstone projects. And plans are well underway for the first Thacher Summer Summit, to be held June 17-21 on the Thacher campus. “The idea,” explains Head of School Michael Mulligan, “is to gather leaders of senior-year, academic capstone projects to collaborate and share ideas.”

Drawing together representatives from independent, public, and charter schools, this peer-to-peer learning network will collaborate on a set of best practices for independent projects. In addition to gaining insights and ideas to strengthen existing programs, participants will develop a library of resources and examples with the intention of fostering and mentoring schools interested in developing and expanding capstone programs.

“I am confident that the Senior Exhibition is a transformational experience that changes the nature of high school for young men and women,” says Michael. “This grant is good external validation of something we have been working on for quite some time—a program we are proud of, and one we expect to continue refining. Now we get to carry that project to a broader community and have the opportunity to learn from other schools as well.”

Jeff Hooper, director of the Senior Exhibition program, notes that unlike some of the programs that distinguish Thacher from other schools, this one lends itself to export: “It doesn’t require a saddle or a backpack, just committed teachers and students, which are in abundant supply throughout the country. And learning about the experiences of students and teachers in programs like ours will enrich and inform our own decisions and practices.”

The Evolution of Thacher's Senior Exhibition Program 
The first Senior Exhibition project was filed by Alex Wilson CdeP 1979; the topic was the the Flying V Rodeo (a mid-century, all-female extravaganza). It was several years before the next one: The Rise and Fall of Broadway by Harte Israel CdeP 1992. By 1994, the program had a new champion with the installation of Michael Mulligan as head of school, and there were seven recorded, from Gothic and Islamic Architecture (Meredith Bressie) to Homelessness (Dermond Thomas). And by 1996, the Senior Exhibition was a requirement of graduation.

Since then, it has continued to evolve and grow. In the hands of a series of thoughtful custodians (Jake Jacobsen, Elizabeth Bowman, Kurt Meyer, and, today, Jeff Hooper) the program has built on success, borrowing ideas from other programs, and becoming the robust and highly developed capstone experience it is today.

No longer are formal outlines and polished research papers required. Instead, the emphasis has shifted to ensuring a rigorous process and well-crafted final presentation. To this end, students now organize and share their research using an electronic research journal, essentially a blog. Another recent addition to the process is a presentation advisor who enters the project in the spring to coach seniors as they wrap up their research and begin to think about communicating what they have learned to a live audience.

And now, as the first Thacher Summer Capstone Consortium provides a forum for sharing the program beyond Thacher, it also opens up promising new channels for insights and improvements.

About the Edward E. Ford Foundation
As the only foundation that focuses exclusively on independent secondary schools, EE Ford helps schools such as Thacher “leverage their unique talents, expertise, and resources to advance teaching and learning throughout this country.” Since its inception in 2008, the Educational Leadership Grant Program has made 20 gifts of $250,000 each. According to the EE Ford website, recipient programs “must be generative; be transformational; be replicable; include partnerships; and address the question: “What is the public purpose of private education?”
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