Increasing Cornerstone Student Success with the Senior Defense Project

School districts across the country have been working on ways to increase the college retention rates of their students, according to Crystal Jackson, English teacher and Senior Defense Coordinator at Cornerstone Health + Technology High School (CH+THS). “Seniors did not have enough experience with research, writing and oral presentation skills, which was a key contributor to students leaving college after just one or two semesters. It became a major concern,” she explained.

Ms. Jackson came to Cornerstone in 2015 to lead the CH+THS Senior Defense project. In her position, she guides the seniors as they learn how to conduct solid research to write a substantial paper and how to present their findings in a live presentation to a panel of judges. The process is similar to what college students do when they defend a Ph.D. dissertation.

At the beginning of their senior year, all CH+THS students receive a rubric and topics of selection for the project. Jackson shared, “The structure of the project this year follows Cornerstone’s Career Pathways model. We have five business industries the students are focused on: Healthcare, Manufacturing, Business, Construction, and Information Technology.”

Getting Started

“At first, Senior Defense can be unnerving, because the rules of collegiate writing and research are all new to these students,” commented Ms. Jackson. “The seniors learn about different resources from which they can extract information for their research, including books, websites, film and video, journal documents and personal interviews. Students understand that one has to give credit to all information sources. The English department at CH+THS also teaches them the valuable skill of taking detailed notes.”

With the focus on career topics this year, Senior Defense students have taken advantage of the access to business professionals who participate in Partner Morning. The seniors met with their business partners and interviewed them for additional information to reinforce their research.

The Live Presentation

The last stage of the Senior Defense Project is a presentation to a panel of judges who determine if the student has gained knowledge through their research. These judges include Cornerstone staff and administration members, city officials and business partners. Understandably, this process can be intimidating for some of the students.

The panel of judges then decides:

  • Whether the student has gained the required ELA knowledge
  • If the data is parallel with their research
  • Whether the student is a well-rounded individual with skills they have gained in an elective such as Spanish, Art, DECA or through an internship
  • If the student is ready to graduate

Ms. Jackson is present at every student’s presentation. “I have attended 100% of them, and the Senior Defense Project is working. Most of the students are maintaining A and B averages in college English and writing.” This project places Cornerstone in a unique academic status as a secondary school.

“In a globally competitive society, knowledge of business and education are imperative determinants defining success,” Ms. Jackson says. She’s instilling that knowledge in her students, who are moving into the real world with the strong research, writing and communication skills they’ll need for success.