Real-World Experience with a Public Purpose

In many fine schools across the nation, students in 12th grade break from the classroom for a weeks-long experience in the real-world, pursuing a passion—or a curiosity—in settings like art museums, schools, law offices, advertising firms.

The Senior Comprehensive Project, a graduation requirement for seniors during the spring of their senior year, integrates traditional academic disciplines with “real world” issues and topics.
In Spring 2021, the experience was modified because of the pandemic: Working in small groups, seniors identify a social challenge and connect with experts, professionals and community leaders to explore the topics central to that challenge. The students identify potential solutions and create a formal presentation of their learnings and recommendations.

On a sunny day in May, the senior class gathered in worship on the very patio they would cross a few weeks later at Commencement. As a breeze blew through the trees, students shook hands in closure, as smiles and a buzz of voices reconnecting, sharing stories of their week, rose into the air.

In many fine schools across the nation, students in 12th grade break from the classroom for a weeks-long experience in the real-world, pursuing a passion—or a curiosity—in settings like art museums, schools, law offices, advertising firms.

What now sets apart Penn Charter’s senior experience, called the Senior Comprehensive Project, is that each PC 12th grader must find a project that also has a public purpose.

Last spring’s projects crossed the spectrum of professional fields, a testament to the diversity of students interests and passions. Three seniors shadowed David Jaspan OPC ’86, P ’20, a gynecologist with a holistic approach to women’s health; a group worked in the Phillies back office at the invitation of Matt Kessler OPC ’99 and learned ways to attract and celebrate diverse populations in Philadelphia; one student designed sustainable buildings with PC parent Zamir Garcia; yet another worked on issues of affordable housing and redevelopment in Germantown.

The evolution of the Senior Comp is one example of the Center for Public Purpose (CfPP) effort to more deeply embed public purpose in the academic curriculum.

Sharon Ahram, assistant director of the CfPP, who led the work, said the new Senior Comp is a curricular manifestation of Penn Charter’s Strategic Vision to “educate students to live lives that make a difference.”

“Part of what it takes to live a life that makes a difference is to be able to communicate in different ways, in different settings, and to learn to navigate unfamiliar—and perhaps uncomfortable—situations,” Ahram said.

Ahram felt the first year of the revamped Senior Comp was a success overall and also for individual students. “Kids went in thinking they might like one thing or found they didn’t have enough work, but they figured it out,” she said. “Success looked really different for different students.”

Christmas Cotter worked at the Center for Creative Works in Wynnewood with Stephanie Petro OPC ’96, who is the nonprofit’s education and programming specialist. The organization is a unique work environment with a goal of developing creative work potential and cultural identity for people with intellectual disabilities.

Cotter said she originally wanted to explore art therapy with a focus on wellness, and imagined she would set up a Senior Comp with a psychologist or psychiatrist. “But I visited and fell in love with Creative Works,” she said. Cotter spent the early days of her Senior Comp learning about the organization and then shadowed instructors. “Meeting the participants and talking with them about their art was the greatest,” she gushed.

Caroline Chovanes worked in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs and had her hand in many different tasks, including a social media takeover and working on an event with the Independent Business Alliance, which is Greater Philadelphia’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Chovanes is active in the performing arts and and wasn’t sure she would like working in an office. “I was worried I would be bored sitting at a desk, but my projects kept me really engaged,” she said. She had the opportunity to meet people working on different mayoral projects, and she enjoyed the energy and discussions. Chovanes shared a desk with classmate Priya Ahmad, who worked in the Office of Youth Engagement and had been interning there prior to the start of her Senior Comp. Then Tom Freitag OPC ’16 arrived in their office as a new intern and Chovanes showed him the ropes. “It was like a passing of the baton,” she said.

After his first placement fell through, Nasir Young worked at McKenzie Sports Physical Therapy and shadowed Craig Israelite, a top orthopedic surgeon. Young’s faculty advisor, PC athletic trainer Jessica Rawlings, commended Young for plugging away to find the right project after an initial placement with athletic trainers at Drexel University fell through.

“We talked about how to take initiative in an office setting,” said Rawlings. “Once Nasir got into the swing of how the offices worked and moved, he had a great experience. He probably would have loved more time.”

Chovanes also wished the Senior Comp lasted longer than four weeks. “You’re just getting in the groove,” she said of the four-week duration. “And then you have to leave!”

All seniors are required to complete the 80-hour Senior Comp. Last year, students began work on their proposals in November, submitting formal proposals in February. This long process enables students to consider their interests and connect with potential host sites, often using Penn Charter’s network of parents and OPCs.

Ahram attributes the success of the Senior Comp last year, in part, to the support of the Penn Charter community. “There was a combination of parents sharing their contacts, and OPCs and OPC parents offering help,” Ahram said. “The value our community gives is endless, and the Penn Charter name carries weight across Philadelphia. That is priceless.”

Student proposals are reviewed by teachers and honed into robust, real-world experiences for each student—experiences that connect to the academic curriculum, have a public purpose that addresses a local, national or global issue, and offer the opportunity to gain skills and competencies needed to live a life that makes a difference.

During the four-week project, students return to campus every Friday to meet in small cohort groups—faculty-led discussion groups made up of peers doing projects in similar fields. Students sought their own readings to enhance their experience. “I read case studies and a PhD dissertation related to art therapy,” Cotter said. “It was good to come together to talk about our projects.”

Philip Stevens, an Upper School English teacher who supported Ahram in the reenvisioning of the Senior Comp, was impressed that “students took charge of and navigated their own inquiry.”

And, on the morning of Color Day, when the Senior Comp culminated with students presenting to small groups of advisors, parents and outside evaluators, Stevens was impressed again. “It was energizing to be in the room,” he recalled. “Students were sharing, asking questions of each other. There was obvious pride in what they had done and seen.”