Schools have long emphasized preparing students for college or a career.
Hilton Head Christian Academy is taking that notion a step further -- giving students an experience not unlike obtaining a master's degree.
The Diploma With Distinction program the school rolled out this year puts participants in a long-term project on a topic of their choosing, headmaster Daniel Wesche said.
"The big heart of the program and focus is to allow our students the opportunity to do a long-term project related to their real world interests and grow on their passions and explore those in a very rigorous academic way," Wesche said.
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He said the program grew out of wanting to give students a project to develop critical thinking, work with a team and become masters of a topic they care about.
It is structured much like a graduate thesis, upper-school English teacher Ben Gerdts said.
The program is open to -- but not required of -- students who submit proposals in the fall of their junior year. Then during the next two years, the students will work with a faculty mentor and team of advisers to conduct research, form their thesis and present and defend it before a panel in their senior year.
The goal was to create a program "that, regardless of what college or degree or career they went in to, nothing would be overwhelming for them after this," Gerdts said. "We wanted to make it professional and even a little intimidating, and give students the opportunity to make themselves the experts in their topic of choice."
Wesche said the program should give students an advantage in applications for colleges and careers, as well as interviews for both.
Of the 42 students in the junior class, Wesche said, about a third are participating.
"My favorite thing about this program so far is that each project is so different," junior Grace Patton said in a school news release.
Gerdts said he has been amazed by the topics in participants' proposals -- ranging from art history to fashion design.
"A project like this takes a high level of motivation," Wesche said. "And that's something I'm really proud of because they're coming up with these ideas and following through with it."
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.