This Long Island teaching duo holds all the aces.
In the past two years, Valley Stream North High School co-teachers Nicole Ryan and Joe Powers have seen five of their students score perfect 5s on their AP Capstone assessments, a feat so rare that Powers likened it to winning the lottery five times.
“This does not happen,” he said. “This is like a unicorn or a dinosaur event.”
It certainly wasn’t imaginable when Ryan, an English teacher, and Powers, a history teacher, first teamed up to launch the Capstone course in 2017.
The intensive class for sophomores and juniors is split into two years, the first for AP Seminar and the second for AP Research. Students dig deep on a topic they are passionate about — say, law, oncology or sports — conduct detailed research and learn how to produce materials fit for publication in an academic journal, as well as present on their topics.
“The kids really are just motivating to me,” Ryan said. “I read what they’re reading so I can continue to guide them. I’ve learned so much in this whole process. It’s just such a joy.”
For Powers, the course is an opportunity to break out of the rigidity of exam-driven classwork that drills as many units as possible. The result, he said, is students build confidence and the all-around research skills that will enable them to dig into essentially any topic or work and find success.
While the course is popular (it’s grown to two sections each of Seminar and Research) and students have thrived, the five perfect scores are something unto their own. Two were notched in the 2021 Seminar class. The other three came on last spring’s Research exam.
Put in perspective, that’s two of 24 students worldwide who earned perfect Seminar scores, out of nearly 47,000 total. In Research, the Valley Stream three were among 306 top scorers out of roughly 29,000 students.
“It’s every teacher’s dream,” Ryan said. “I’m so excited for the kids. ... They find out their scores before I do, and to find out from them (that they received a perfect score) is truly amazing.”
Both teachers said any fellow educator interested in launching a Capstone course shouldn’t hesitate. Powers said successful programs need instructors who are inquisitive and willing to work on long projects.
“You really need to be able to tighten things at some point, and then the hardest thing for all teachers is you have to be willing to let go,” he said. “You have to choose the right type of instructor at the onset, then you have to be willing to allow students the academic freedom to engage.”
As for their own course, there’s one even rarer accomplishment the pair has yet to see: One student acing both the Seminar and Research assessments.
“That will be our goal,” Ryan said with a chuckle. “Perfect scores in both.”