A new advanced diploma option is coming to Sentinel High School.
Starting this fall, Sentinel will be the first school in Montana to implement the Advanced Placement Capstone Diploma program. The diploma was developed by College Board, the not-for-profit that houses advanced placement. It was implemented in 650 high schools worldwide this year.
To earn the diploma, a student has to earn a score of 3 or higher on six AP exams, including exams for two courses that will come on board at Sentinel in the next two school years: AP Seminar and AP Research.
The four other AP exams can come from any AP course a student chooses.
Students who earn scores of 3 or higher on only the Seminar and Research exams will earn an AP Seminar and Research Certificate.
AP Seminar begins this fall. It's the prerequisite for AP Research, which will begin in the fall of 2018. Conceivably, that means current sophomores could graduate with an AP diploma in 2019.
In AP Seminar, students take an interdisciplinary approach, looking at a topic or theme through a variety of lenses and materials. They'll be evaluated on a team project and presentation, and an individual research-based essay and presentation, in addition to the final AP exam.
"When you have a program like Advanced Placement with subject-specific courses, there's a need to create a mechanism to tie it all together and explicitly train students in ways of thinking, communicating and collaborating in an interdisciplinary way," said principal Ted Fuller.
Teachers will have the flexibility to choose subjects based on student interest.
"We don't want students to accept things as they're presented to them," said Sentinel social studies and AP teacher Ezra Shearer, who will be teaching the AP Seminar course. "We don't want them to have a narrow view.
"It's a set of transferable skills that will serve them in all pursuits."
Shearer said it's about value, rather than loading students' transcripts with college credits just for the sake of having them.
"If you don't believe in it, then those are hollow," he said.
AP Research will build on what was learned in AP Seminar, with students conducting a research project over a year and documenting their process in a portfolio. They'll complete a thesis paper, presentation and oral defense.
"I think we talk about research at the undergraduate level at UM. ... but having a student come to the University of Montana with extensive research experience and the ability to conceptualize a project, design it and then execute it is really attractive," said Brock Tessman, dean of UM's Davidson Honors College.
"One of the things that's most difficult for students when it comes to managing the high school to college transition is taking charge of your own education. I think that this ... is a nice step in the right direction."
He believes the AP diploma is in response to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.
The IB diploma has been implemented in nearly 3,000 schools worldwide, including at Hellgate and Big Sky in Missoula.
IB and AP are often compared, with educators debating which is more valuable. Locally, the debate has come to the surface during recent conversations about complications with the number of advanced options overwhelming Hellgate's master schedule.
"This is something that I think in the past has separated the IB program from the AP program," Tessman said. "AP is a much older program, and it's based around specific classes and exams that are attached to those classes.
"IB is very much a coordinated curriculum, which allowed universities like University of Montana to recognize it as such and not just as a collection of individual classes."
For example, students with an IB diploma often enter UM in sophomore standing. Because the AP diploma is new, students with the diploma won't enjoy that same advancement right away.
"But I think this is a step forward for AP," Tessman said. "It allows a university to consider all those courses, and now this research, as a collective experience."
Sentinel currently offers 18 AP courses, which make up about 12 percent of the course guide. This year there are about 575 enrollments in AP courses, which includes students taking more than one AP course.
Class sizes in Sentinel's AP courses are about the same as traditional courses.
"We've taken our time and resisted some of the systemic changes," Shearer said. "We've been pretty selective the past six years."
IB students must take six IB courses over their junior and senior years to earn the diploma.
The requirements for the AP diploma can be spread out over all four years. Students would need to take no more than two AP courses a year.
Each year, about 20 to 30 students graduate Sentinel with at least six AP credits – the same as the AP diploma's requirement.
"It's not for everyone, just like the IB diploma is not for everyone," Fuller said.
Tessman agreed, pointing out that a research project of this size "takes some intellectual maturity."
The AP diploma is a way for counselors to say to college admissions officers: "Here's a gritty kid," Fuller said.
"The biggest benefit, bar none, is college readiness and preparedness. Forget getting into school and earning college credit; those are the wrong targets. Certainly they're benefits of pursuing the diploma, and they should not be dismissed, but if you're a person committed to maximizing your college preparation, this is for you."
Other than the cost of professional development for Shearer and the to-be-named teacher for AP Research, the addition of an AP diploma comes at no cost to the district.
In total, an AP diploma will cost a student $654: $93 for four AP exams and $141 each for AP Seminar and AP Research.
To earn an IB diploma, it costs a student $890: $120 per exam and a $170 one-time registration fee. A Washington Foundation grant pays for IB in MCPS, except for staffing. Each IB school has its own coordinator; Lewis and Clark Elementary is an IB school, and Franklin is in the application process.
"One of the things that's important for me as a school leader is that we stay relevant," Fuller said. "I always want us to be nimble enough to scale up new programming quickly when resources are available."
Adding another advanced option doesn't mean the school is cutting general courses. For example, while the social studies department is taking on this new AP program, it's also adding a traditional elective this fall in mapping and GIS (geographic information systems).
There's often a misperception, Fuller said, that because some students are advanced or gifted that "they're fine" and don't need extra support.
"All means all," he said.