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Juan Diego’s AP Capstone program designed to give students critical, deeper thinking skills

Apr 06, 2018 11:01AM ● Published by Julie Slama

Juan Diego Catholic High School is Utah’s first high school to offer the AP Capstone program. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

Two Juan Diego Catholic High School students are scheduled to graduate this spring with the school’s first ever AP Capstone distinction. Four additional students are on target for a spring 2019 graduation.

“AP Capstone is the advanced placement college board program that teaches students how to conduct in-depth research, analyze evidence, organize data and write comprehensively,” said Mary McConnell, Juan Diego AP Capstone director and curriculum consultant. “These students are independent thinkers who can work collaboratively with their peers on projects.”

While Juan Diego has had AP courses for years and is currently offering 25 classes from AP French to AP environmental science, the AP Capstone program is relatively new. Juan Diego also is Utah’s first high school to offer the AP Capstone program.

“We wanted to provide a systemic training for more gifted students,” McConnell said. 

About 40 students are enrolled in the AP Capstone program, including junior Chloe Tatum.

“I’ve taken AP courses this year, but through this format, I feel more comfortable,” she said. “It’s also really cool how being in this program we’ve created a community where we work together. It feels like a family and we have one another for support as we go through this rigorous work.”

At Juan Diego, students are invited into the program based on their scores on the Accuplacer, a reading comprehension test that many colleges use as prerequisites for students taking introductory classes.

Students in the program begin by take four AP courses, starting with AP art history.

“The class gives them an introduction to this world,” McConnell said. “Students enter high school and are ready for a challenge, but even so, the classes surprises them with the amount of work and its depth. Students learn about complex matters and study visual cues to analyze as well as put into historical perspectives.”

McConnell said the Juan Diego freshmen who took the course did well this past year, with 18 of the 22 taking the exam scoring 4s or 5s out of a perfect 5 score. A score of 3 is passing. 

“We out-performed the nation’s average,” she said.

In addition to taking four AP courses, students in the AP Capstone program enroll in the newly offered AP seminar and AP research courses, which McConnell said are designed to complement and enhance the other courses.

Through the AP seminar course, students research in depth, evaluate evidence and write a 5,000-word paper, complete with about a dozen sources, which Principal Galey Colosimo said “compares to a master’s thesis.”

“The juniors and seniors in AP research write their thesis whether it’s the science and math strain or the social studies and English strain,” he said. “When it’s done, they’ll be able to defend their writing.”

The AP seminar is a group project, where the team has to orally present their project. Their presentations are videotaped and graded and sent to the college board for review.

The school already is earning a distinction — one of its videos of student presentations is being used as part of an internal online training, McConnell said.

She said that they tie in AP world history with its AP seminar course.

“This requires students to examine the evidence they discover and historically debate it,” she said. “Not only do they learn how to put together an effective presentation, they reinforce what they have learned in history. The final capstone project is one that is a culminating academic and intellectual experience for our students.”

Before graduating, students need to pass the final AP exam, which includes both essay questions and multiple-choice questions.

McConnell also said that by earning the AP Capstone diploma, it will save money on entry-level college classes, but more so, she said the program is good preparation for future study.

“Through AP Capstone, students will learn the step-by-step on what makes a good research paper and will know how to do the research,” she said.

Colosimo said the program isn’t for all his students.

“Students have to apply and desire to really want to do it,” he said. “The program is not for everyone. Some kids thrive for an environment to excel. They really want it and are really serious about their academics.”

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