GREENSBORO — About six years ago, when her daughter was in eighth grade, Laura Strange was part of a task force looking at ideas for a new, academically-rigorous magnet program for Western Guilford High.

The group considered possibilities like an International Baccalaureate program or a Science Technology Engineering and Math academy, Strange said, but there were already examples of those at other high schools in the county. When they heard about a new program from the College Board that combined AP classes with students doing their own major research projects, something just clicked.

“It was like a lightbulb moment because it was the first one in the state,” Strange said. “It just seemed like it would be a good fit for a wide range of students.”

Fast forward half-a-dozen years and Strange’s daughter is a graduate of Western Guilford’s AP Capstone Program and a rising sophomore at Appalachian State, attending on a full academic scholarship. Western Guilford’s AP Capstone program is no longer alone in the state — 31 other North Carolina high schools have picked up the program, including the STEM Early College at N.C. A&T.

The core of the AP Capstone program is a series of two classes — AP seminar and then AP research. It varies from school to school which years students take the classes. At Western, it’s junior and senior years, while the STEM Early College offers the courses during freshman and sophomore years.

In AP seminar students learn to read and analyze scholarly research and other sources, as well as muster their own arguments in writing and public speaking. Then, in AP research, students come up with a plan to conduct their own research project: collecting and analyzing their own data. Students work on their projects all year, ending with a paper of about 4,000 to 5,000 words and an oral defense of their project.

Students who score a “3” or higher in the seminar and research classes can receive an AP Seminar and Research Certificate. If they get those scores for the seminar and research classes and also earn threes or better on the exams for four additional AP classes over the course of high school, they receive the AP Capstone Diploma.

Students said an AP Capstone Diploma allows them to pick and choose the AP courses that fit their interests. And then in the research class, students can select a topic that might not as easily fit in with a more typical high school class.

Emma Strange, Laura Strange’s daughter, looked into the impact of including or excluding information about LGBT people and topics from high school sex education. That probably wasn’t the easiest topic to tackle, she said, but it was a rewarding challenge. After a few dead ends, she was able to set up an experiment where she and a friend taught two different versions of the same sex-ed class before school and then surveyed the volunteer participants.

Her experiences helped her think about the kind of research she’d like to do in college, she said. Also, learning about organizing notes and writing bibliographies in the seminar course has been making writing papers in college easier.

Ideally, she said, she would like to see College Board’s graders offer feedback on the research papers they grade. She got a good score, she said, but she feels there’s a lot of subjectivity to it, despite a rubric that’s supposed to guide graders. It would be great to know, she said, what those graders thought was good and what could be improved.

Ashley Brown, a 2018 Western graduate, decided to use her research to take a look at the AP Capstone program itself. She heard a parent ask whether participating in AP Capstone helped students do better on their other AP Exams and decided she could find out for herself. With help from school staff, Brown was able to pull the school’s data, with names hidden, for scores on AP U.S. history and AP English language and composition.

The short version of a long research paper is that Capstone did seem to make a big positive difference in scores. Brown thinks the skills students learn in the AP seminar class pay off on the written parts of those exams. On the AP U.S. history test, for example, students often have to write essays based on documents such as historical propaganda. Having experience evaluating different types of sources helps there, she said.

Western Guilford principal Pete Kashubara said the school has worked to make AP Capstone a full, four-year experience for students, some of whom come from the Western attendance zone and some from other parts of the county. Students now take English together during their freshman and sophomore years to fit in extra preparation and build bonds for the work they’ll do together in the seminar class. There’s also community service activities, field trips over breaks to colleges and universities, and a partnership with UNCG.

Throughout it all, he said, they’ve strived to communicate and build community with families, and develop trust that way.

“These parents and students took a real chance on a brand new academic program,” he said. “ ... I believe that trust has turned into a commitment.”

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Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.

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