In his final year at Staples High School, Derek Mushro, 17, has been spending more time outside of class than in. It's that time of year when the weather is perfect, the college acceptance letters are already in and the AP examinations are finished. Now, it's just a matter of going through the motions and wrapping up some projects until donning the cap and gown later this month.

The thing is that for the past couple weeks, Mushro has been as busy as ever. As an intern at Cadoux Architects, the senior has been visiting work sites, drafting designs for his portfolio and seeing first-hand what goes into being an architect.

"For what I'm doing in college, this is definitely the most beneficial thing I could be doing," said Mushro, who will be attending the Pratt Institute to study architecture.

The budding architect, who found his passion after playing with Legos in kindergarten, is one of 286 Staples seniors interning 25 hours a week rather than spending their final days stuck in a classroom. With approximately 425 students in the class of 2010, school administrators see the skyrocketing popularity in the relatively young program as a deterrent to senioritis.

"Now, will it eliminate senioritis? No," said Staples Principal John Dodig. "For most kids, it would be motivation for them to be bona fide students as they had been for the first seven semesters because they want to be an intern."

In order to be eligible, students need to have at least a C average and haven't "abused the school attendance policy," according to Dodig. During the winter, students can apply to a pool of available internships or propose their own. Come May, they'll spend several weeks at the job, but still have the freedom to come to school to meet with advisers or put the finishing touches on some projects. While interning, they have to fill out daily logs demonstrating the work they completed.

The program is based on what some schools, such as Greenwich, have offered for years. Westport's program was launched in 2008 with just 48 students. In 2009, that number rose to 138. That number doubled this year, and Dodig expects it to rise once again in 2011.

"They're just ready to do it," he said. "So many of our kids work extremely hard for three-and-a-half years for whatever reason, but for most of them to get into college. They really work themselves into a frenzy almost."

There's another reason at play, as well.

"The kids that stayed behind last year and didn't go on internships were miserable because after AP exams I think there's something to be learned in the classroom, but ... it is almost anti-climatic," said Joyce Eldh, who oversees the internship program. "A lot of the kids' friends went on internships and they had good experiences."

Eldh was involved in the PTA when she was asked to head up the brand-new internship program. She's paid a small stipend for hours of work, some of which involve making visits to businesses throughout Fairfield County to see if they'd be willing to take on an intern.

"It's a pretty easy sell because they're getting four weeks of a bright kid to do some work, unpaid," she said. "It's a no-lose situation."

With nearly 300 students out of school, the hallways at Staples have been a bit quieter. For those seniors still in school, Dodig said there are often underclassmen in the classroom, so the students aren't totally alone. He said the smaller class size allows some teachers to have much more freedom in their teaching methods than when dealing with a full classroom.

However, one student reported that a senior friend is the only person in class and simply watches movies.

The types of jobs students might apply for vary. Several students are interning in the Westport schools to see what it takes to be a teacher. Some students are working in restaurants, while others are interning at finance companies. At least one student is interning with a florist. Some of the available internships lead to summer jobs and future careers. Others are just a change of pace and scenery for the students.

For Mushro, it's definitely the former.

He works alongside a college intern and several architects, including Peter Cadoux, principal of the firm.

"He's being exposed to all the facets of architecture that we can think of in the amount of time that's he's got, and that includes learning how we execute the drawings on the computer, reviewing sets of drawings and what they're like and what he'd be expected to produce as an architect," Cadoux said.

Those projects range from small cottages to massive homes to commercial projects.

"Derek works hard here," Cadoux said. "He's not just sitting around."