Leelanau News and Events

Since 1986, Northport Graduates Tackling Big Issues

By Ross Boissoneau | May 24, 2023

Like many schools, seniors at Northport Public Schools have to complete a senior project. The Northport tradition began in 1986, and this year’s crop has been tackling some fascinating issues.

Current superintendent Neil Wetherbee remembers working on his when he was a senior at Northport.

He says the projects take a variety of forms and encompass a number of subjects. “This year we had more around mental health. How sports builds relationships, healthy lifestyles, music therapy,” he says.

The seniors must write a paper, create a product, and present their project at a public forum. The public presentation took place last Friday., and was attended by almost 100 family and community members.

“We always have parents and families, retired people who see all the hard work they do. For many it’s a highlight of the year,” Wetherbee says. The audience also includes students from elementary age to high school. “Younger kids come to see their friends and what they’ll have to do."

Each of the seniors is paired with a mentor, typically a teacher from the district, though not always. Wetherbee says one student in a previous class wanted to explore the physical and mental benefits of boxing, and worked with a boxing instructor from Traverse City.

Middle school English teacher Donna Wilson worked with two students as a mentor this year; one student chose to explore the educational power of film, while another wanted to study the effects of public education on indigenous youth.

She says the former is a student in film at the tech center in Traverse City, and part of his project included interviewing his grandfather. The other student interviewed a tribal elder and other students. “I’m amazed every year at what they’re passionate about. I’m very proud of them,” she says.

Indeed, the students are encouraged to choose a topic they are passionate about or interested in learning more about. For senior Lyndsay Collins, that meant trying to encourage other students to play sports. “I’ve been a three-sport athlete. I like to be active. But we don’t have our own sports teams – we cooperate with Suttons Bay. There’s not a ton of participation, and I try to get them (other students) interested.”

She says the focus of her project was encouraging younger students to engage in team sports, which she says will help build relationships with people they might not otherwise get to know. “A lot of younger (kids) play, but just for fun, not on teams. So I tried to make them more comfortable with Suttons Bay."

Not only do the students have to write a paper, produce a product and present their project, they have to spend at least 15 hours doing so. Collins initially found herself short of time after creating her first product, a Google survey for 4th- and 9th-graders, so she spent time creating an interactive bulletin board and signup sheet, doing a presentation to 6th-, 7th- and 9th-graders, and finally creating a virtual classroom.

Does she think she was successful in stimulating student interest? “I think I did. I had a lot of 4th- and 5th-graders excited to play sports in the fall,” she says.

Wetherbee and Wilson say the projects prepare students for the world ahead, whether they are going on to college or preparing to work in a field. Either way, the results – and the public presentation – provide crucial skills. “The capstone project shows what you learned,” says Wetherbee. “Some struggle with it, and it’s an opportunity for them to learn skills like writing and time management."

Wilson says they hone their skills, including how to communicate effectively, something they’ll need to do whatever their future holds. “It’s what real life is in a nutshell,” she says.

So how did the superintendent fare in his project back in the day? “I did a project in mechanical engineering (about) bridge failure. I wanted to build a balsa wood example,” Wetherbee says, but that year a product wasn’t mandatory. Instead, he and a classmate did a complete portfolio explaining the process. “We did the research and the paper, but didn’t do a project,” he says.

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