The premise is relatively simple: give students a chance to work on something near and dear to them personally and they will come up with projects that benefit others, boost their creativity and teach some valuable life lessons in the process.
It’s called the 20% Project, and El Capitan High School students got to spend their Fridays working on programs of their own choosing, such as a campus clothes closet, designing more environmentally friendly homes or doing weekly videos of events for fellow students at the north Merced campus.
Tina Spurlock, El Capitan English teacher and 20% Project adviser, said not all of the student pursuits were successful. She doesn’t think students realize how much time goes into making a project or program work. They learned failure just means they have to take another approach.
“They learned a lot about process; it was very practical,” Spurlock said. “We gave students an opportunity to explore something besides what they are told to do. They could work on a project if they weren’t behind on an assignment or their grades were low. They had to be bettering the world.”
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Nine of the El Capitan students got involved in “The Gaucho Closet,” a place on campus where students could get free clothing, backpacks, household goods and other personal necessities. Overall there were 40 projects that captured the students’ time.
Angel Mendoza, a junior, said a group of his friends wanted a project focusing on homeless students. Last year the Gaucho Closet was open at lunchtime for all students. Students and teachers donated shirts, shoes, blouses, pants, purses and backpacks, and a local clothing retailer gave display racks.
Mendoza, 16, said this year they plan to make the closet bigger. He started realizing he had plenty and the project made him want to help others.
“It was definitely a good experience,” Mendoza said. “I got time at school to work on something I’m passionate about.” Mendoza wants to major in psychology in college.
Fe Romero, also a junior, said she enjoys helping people and work on the Gaucho Closet project was ideal. She is considering a career as either a physical therapist or a teacher.
“I have always had empathy for others,” Romero said. “It’s a strong quality that I have. My mom always told us not to grow up with the desire of having things. Our school’s motto is ‘Learn, Love, Lead and Leave a Legacy.’ ”
Romero said it’s not very common for a teacher to tell students to do what they wanted to do but they received an encouraging push from their teacher.
Spurlock said at the beginning of the past school year students did a “public pitch” to set out their yearlong projects. At the end of the year they did presentations on the takeaways they gained from their efforts.
Being able to pick their own projects was very freeing, Spurlock said, and some students realized what they thought was an ideal pursuit was far from it. Students created websites where they blogged every Friday about their progress, success and failures.
Norma Cardona, the Merced Union High School District’s child and youth liaison, said it was great working with students as a mentor on the Gaucho Closet project.
“They really wanted to do something to help their peers,” Cardona said. “It was a really good experience; they’re bright kids.”
Spurlock said some called the 20% Project “the genius hour.” The engagement or wholehearted involvement with the projects was there. She lamented that America had been the country of creators and innovators but this spark appears to be waning.
This year El Capitan’s social studies teachers will be encouraged to continue the 20% Project, Spurlock said.
Ethan Baker, a junior and aspiring architect, wanted to design a house that benefits the environment. He has been working on ideas to save precious resources such as gas and water but realizes achieving these goals may take a long time.
Karthik Reddy, a junior, produced the “Gaucho Cast,” a weekly video two to three minutes long, along with Reno Bandoni. They profiled sporting events, activities, noontime rallies, dances and after-school programs.
Reddy said the videos likely will continue for the current school year. He noticed bigger crowds at school activities after they had been documented on video.