Cavalier Capstones

From Science of Food to Machu Picchu, a New End to the Upper School Year

By Kathy McPherson // Lettering by Sarah Jane Tart

The school year had barely begun, but ninth- through 11th-graders were already thinking about what they would be doing the last week of the school year. No, it wasn’t exams — final exams would be completed by then. Rather, Upper Schoolers were studying the 40-page Cavalier Capstone Catalog and deciding which of the 30 experiences interested them.

The shift to May’s Cavalier Capstones marks a change from trips that used to take place at the beginning of the school year. Typically, all ninth- and 10th-graders would set out for an outdoor adventure and all 11th-graders would travel through the Southeast on the Civil Rights Tour in August. Cavalier Capstones are four-day educational or experiential programs offered by DA faculty and staff, held after commencement and Upper School final exams. Upper School humanities teacher Kelly Teagarden ’04, who serves as Cavalier Capstone coordinator, said the new program allows students to choose what they want to do and to have a smaller, more intimate experience with students from different grades. Most Capstone experiences will be limited to 10 to 20 students, and all will be led by faculty and staff.

The change does not impact rising seniors, who will continue to begin the school year with Senior Challenge, a wilderness adventure that has been a Durham Academy hallmark since 1978. Upper School Director Lanis Wilson said Senior Challenge links past graduates with future alumni.

“It has been a central experience for DA 12th-graders for 40 years,” Wilson explained. “It deserves a place of prominence in our curriculum.”

Cavalier Capstone experiences will take place both on and off campus. All are scheduled for May 28–31, with the exception of the international trips — journeys to China, Peru and India — which will extend into June. There is no cost to participate in any Capstone other than the international ones, and financial aid is available for those.

“Cavalier Capstone was created to give more student choice and to give [students] smaller, more intimate experiences,” Teagarden said. “The trips at the beginning of the year were phenomenal. I think what’s so cool is Cavalier Capstone still has those. Kids are still able to go on outdoor trips, and the Civil Rights Tour is staying. Tons of kids expressed interest in that. We’re keeping the best parts of what we were doing already and providing more options for kids.”

Ninth- through 11th-graders ranked their top preferred Cavalier Capstone experiences, selecting from 30 choices including “Underwater Search and Rescue: Deep Dive into Robotics,” “Careers in Athletics,” “Write Like a Writer: A Creative Writing Immersion,” “Farm to Table” and “Peru: Trekking to Machu Picchu.”

Old favorites like “Civil Rights Tour Through the American South” were there, as well as soon-to-be new favorites like “Art Adventure: Boston to North Adams, Massachusetts,” “Dancing Through Durham and Beyond,” “The Science of Food,” “Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors: From Page to Stage” and “TEDxDA.” Outdoors enthusiasts likely had a hard time choosing between offerings focused on backpacking, mountain biking, rock-climbing and kayaking.

Teagarden said students were asked to select four Capstones, ranking them in order of preference. “They did a preliminary sign-up, putting it on our radar what they are interested in. They spent the next week talking to their parents and family and friends and submitted a final sign-up by Oct. 28.”

Student interest determined which of the 30 offerings will take place this spring.

“We weren’t sure that all of them would run because it all depends on enrollment, but every single one got interest from at least one student in the initial sign-up,” Teagarden said. “That’s great news.”

Teagarden envisions that students who have three years of Cavalier Capstone experiences “will have one on-campus experience and one off-campus, overnight experience — international trip, Boston trip or whatever. Third year, they will figure out [whether they want to stay on campus or off campus].”

The response from students has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I am so excited for the new Cavalier Capstone program and all of the opportunities that it offers to engage in the Durham community and across the world,” junior Katie Hunter said. “I love being able to choose a program that reflects my interests and being able to learn from teachers that share my passions.”

Sophomore Henry Leasure had similar sentiments.

“I believe that the Cavalier Capstone program is a great idea that will allow us as students to step outside of the classroom and learn more about topics that we are passionate about or allow us to broaden our horizons into new categories,” he explained. “The diverse options make it so that there is something for everyone, and I think that this will lead to great participation in all of the activities.”

When junior Annie Ma learned about the change from start-of-year class trips to end-of-year Capstones, she was initially a bit wary but is now looking forward to May.

“I’m excited for the Cavalier Capstone program. I know each teacher put a lot of effort into crafting [the Capstone offerings],” she said. “While I was disappointed to see the original beginning-of-the-year trips go because I felt like they helped our grade bond together, I’m sure that ultimately, the Capstones will also be successful in that regard — bringing together people who might not meet otherwise.”

And start-of-year grade-level bonding is still very much on the calendar. The 2018–2019 school year began with Cavalier Kickoff orientation and bonding activities, from helping build Habitat for Humanity homes, to an “Amazing Race”-inspired scavenger hunt and Eno River hikes.

“The unique thing about the Cavalier Capstone program is that curiosity will drive us as students, rather than grades or some other factor experienced in a typical class,” sophomore Claire Ridley said. “All the proposals reach beyond the content of any classes offered at DA, and I'm really excited to try something new, no matter where I end up going or what I end up doing.”

Junior Brandon Caveney is especially pleased that the new program offers opportunities for individualized adventures and that it resonates with the school’s mission of equipping students for moral, happy and productive lives.

“As a rock climber, I am thrilled to be able to pursue this passion within an educational atmosphere,” he explained. “I believe the Cavalier Capstone program contributes significantly to the well-roundedness of Durham Academy because it develops the minds and bodies of students outside the classroom. This program certainly makes me happy, and the natural world offers a fabulous environment for productive and moral teachings.”

View the Cavalier Capstone Catalog

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