Friends Senior Abby Preston at Days End Farm Horse Rescue

Area high school seniors eschew classes in May for a taste of the real world.

By May, most seniors are checked out of high school – at least unofficially. Having ripped open college acceptance (and rejection) letters weeks ago, the pending graduates find little to keep them motivated. Painfully aware of the rampant apathy, teachers are equally eager to see seniors go. Rather than suffer through an uninspiring end to the year, several independent high schools end senior classes in the final weeks before graduation, sending the soon-to-be graduates off campus for a glimpse of the working world.

“They love it. They’re eager for a different kind of experience that treats them like the adults they’re becoming. When they come back afterward, it’s amazing to see how fulfilled they seem to be,” said Claudia DeSantis, a Classics teacher at Gilman’s Upper School and coordinator of the senior independent projects program, Encounter.

While each of the schools that participate in independent senior projects call them something different, most share certain guidelines: students must find their own projects, work with a professional adult other than a parent, and spend a significant amount of time — usually seven or eight hours a day — at the place of unpaid employment. Beyond that, one of the major recommendations is that students find a position that allows them to follow their passion.  The projects range from volunteering at a local soup kitchen to traveling to cities like New York and Los Angeles, rich with jobs in industries like film, finance and fashion, to intern in their field of interest.”

Baltimore Fishbowl caught up with a handful of area high school seniors immersed in learning experiences far removed from the classroom. They’re not just making copies in a stuffy office somewhere. Some are getting a peek at the profession they may one day pursue; others are honing hobbies they’ve had since early childhood.

Such is the case with Abby Preston, a Friends School senior who will be attending Dickinson College in the fall. Though international studies may be in her near future, for now she just wants to do something fun. “I really wanted to be outside. I need to be outside,” Preston said.

For four weeks this spring, Preston’s getting her wish. She’s volunteering at Days End Farm Horse Rescue, Inc., a rescue and rehabilitation facility in Woodbine, Maryland. “It’s physical work. We bring in the geldings for feeding and grooming, we do chores like stall cleaning,” said Preston, who notes that many of the horses come to the facility starved, with ribs showing, and skittish due to abuse. A horse rider since the age of 8, Preston is comfortable performing manual labor before buckling down at college next fall.

Other seniors have thrown themselves into situations that may mimic more closely their future professional lives.

Sara Hamilton, a senior at Garrison Forest School and an environmental science buff, landed a gig at NASA, where she’s using the latest in satellite technology to record observations about sub-glacial lakes, a phenomenon that scientists learned about only a few years ago.

“It’s 100 percent different than being at school,” Hamilton said. “It’s very serious. Everywhere you go in the office, the only thing on people’s minds is glaciers.”

That might be intimidating to most high school students, but Hamilton feels right at home at NASA. “I love nerds. This is perfect for me,” said Hamilton, who’s been asked to stay through the summer and continue aiding research on glacier activity in Greenland before heading to Bowdoin College in the fall to study environmental studies.

Though his senior “Encounter” work environment may not possess the serious vibe of the scientists at NASA, Gilman senior Alex Fang is having a similarly rewarding experience. Fang, a music and tech whiz who has always been in bands, is learning the ropes at live music booking agency Starleigh Entertainment, in White Marsh.

Fang admits that some of his time at the agency is spent doing mundane office work like filing, but he balances that with a healthy dose of learning how bands — from wedding bands to nationally known rock bands — get booked, and ways to promote bands via social media.

“I figured it would be a cool way to learn the business side of music,” said Fang, who accepted a music scholarship to Rollins College in the fall, where he’ll study the technology and business aspects of music.

While many area seniors like Fang and Hamilton are shadowing professionals they may one day emulate, two soon-to-be graduates have joined forces in an independent pursuit whose primary guiding force is their shared love of theater.

Friends seniors Declan Meagher and Eric Ritter, who both just starred in the school musical West Side Story, have spent a lot of time on the school’s stage together over the years. But now they’ve switched roles, going behind the scenes to write and direct a play they’ve dubbed Maintained Contact. The comedy of manners is written about — and for — middle schoolers. Along with the standard nerd, popular, and bully characters, an alien from outer space rounds out the cast. Friends middle school students will be performing the play on June 1 and 2.

“It’s been cool working together. We have very different writing styles. Declan has a great grasp on voice and character, and I tend to work on thematics,” said Ritter, who will head to Boston University in the fall to study vocal performance.

Perhaps more challenging than making their own play come alive has been managing middle schoolers. “We’ve had to foster an environment of respect. They’re middle schoolers; they get out of hand sometimes,” Ritter said.

Challenges aside, the seniors couldn’t be happier.

“It’s like we’re living the dream,” said Meagher, who plans to major in theater at Occidental College.