Early symptoms of the disease--lethargy, lack of focus, difficulty making decisions--often appear in the fall. By spring the average, healthy high school senior may have completely succumbed. Senioritis attacks high-achieving, average and struggling students alike. By this time in the school year, most college-bound seniors have turned in their applications and received their acceptance letters. Many of them understandably feel entitled to a little downtime. The 30% of seniors who aren't headed for higher learning may not have figured out what they want to do after graduation, but they are pretty sure that it won't require algebra or Shakespeare.
In short, the second semester of the last year of high school is a kind of waiting room for the next stage of life. But over the past few years, high schools and colleges have begun experimenting with ways to keep students more engaged during the period between homecoming weekend and the senior prom. "Senior year in the U.S. has been based on the 19th century premise that 80% of students will go back to the farm after graduation," says Stanford University education professor Michael Kirst, who co-wrote the 2004 book From High School to College. "In small ways, people are starting to reclaim senior year." Those efforts include internships that keep seniors motivated by allowing them to explore their passions, dual-enrollment programs on college campuses that offer a sneak preview of the higher-education experience and tests designed to alert those likely to have trouble keeping up in college that they should buckle down.
Sara Maghen, 17, leaves school one period early this semester, but she isn't spending the time chatting online with friends or napping at the beach. Instead the senior at private Milken Community High School in Los Angeles commutes across town to intern at Los Angeles Superior Court. While she decides which University of California campus she will attend next fall, Maghen sorts courthouse mail, registers payments of parking tickets and observes trials. She witnesses things that few people outside the legal profession will ever see--like a private-settlement conference between two attorneys and a judge on a $600,000 personal-injury case. "My parents always told me I'd make a great lawyer, 'cause I love to debate," she says.
Maghen is one of 27 seniors at her school who take part in the Wise Individualized Senior Experience (WISE) program, a not-for-profit internship initiative in place in nearly 70 public and private high schools in California, New York, Florida and nine other states. Seniors in WISE earn class credit by completing unpaid internships in their areas of interest. "The students begin to see a connection between their academics and their life goals," says Nancy Schneider, who founded Milken's WISE program in 2000. "Their motivation soars, and they become very committed to meeting their responsibilities." This year Schneider's students are working with a chef and a surgeon, among others. "It's an opportunity to gain real-life experience," says Maghen, who is considering a career as a judge. "This is way more interesting than studying for my advanced-placement bio test."