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Advancing Beyond APs

Academic Excellence at Durham Academy

Durham Academy is an intellectual community rooted in a culture of curiosity, both in and out of the classroom. We thrive in a learning environment that sparks imagination and creativity, supports student inquiry and research, encourages independent ideas and innovative problem-solving, focuses on enduring knowledge and nuanced understanding, assesses that learning in authentic ways and applies that knowledge to real-world, relevant situations.

What that looks like every day is intellectually ambitious students guided and inspired by talented, top-of-their-game teachers through educational experiences that help them to discover and pursue their passions in exciting, rigorous, meaningful and sustained ways.

A Focus on the Future

Thriving in College and Beyond

We’ve defined the tenets of an exceptional educational experience at Durham Academy through our mission, our Strategic Vision and our portrait of a graduate. They revolve around skills that our students need to be successful in college and in life.

1. An exceptional education that:
  • prepares students for success in college and life
  • encourages students to discover and pursue their intellectual passions
  • helps students develop 21st century skills
2. A rigorous, unique curriculum that:
  • is grounded in relevant, flexible learning 
  • is dynamic, interactive, authentic, and meaningful
  • better leverages the talents and diverse interests of our faculty and students
  • positions DA among the leaders of independent school teaching and learning
3. A learning experience that helps students succeed in college admissions, college and beyond

Beyond APs = Best Practice

Shifting Traditional AP Landscapes

While Advanced Placement courses may have once provided an elite-level academic experience, an ever-growing number of top independent schools have recognized that they can offer their families a more robust learning experience — one that goes beyond an inflexible curriculum based largely on memorization and speed —  and provide a more engaging instructional model than teaching to a test. Top independent schools have been advancing beyond APs for decades, and that movement is accelerating.

Colleges and universities have lost faith in APs’ ability to truly prepare students for college and are awarding fewer credits for AP courses with every passing year. The proliferation of AP courses diminishes their uniqueness and ability to help distinguish students in an increasingly competitive college admissions landscape.

DA students want and deserve more opportunities to pursue their intellectual interests that include real-world, relevant courses, answer interdisciplinary questions, emphasize depth over breadth, and research rather than regurgitation. They want to be able to distinguish themselves in ways that reflect their genuine interests and passions.

70+ Beyond AP Schools Nationwide, Including:

  • Cary Academy (NC)

  • Choate Rosemary Hall (CT)

  • Episcopal High School (VA)

  • Lakeside School (WA)

  • Lawrenceville School (NJ)

  • Marin Academy (CA)

  • McDonogh School (MD)

  • Phillips Academy Andover (MA)

  • Phillips Exeter (NH)

  • Sidwell Friends (DC)

  • Spence School (NYC)

  • William Penn Charter School (PA)

With our talented community of faculty and students, we are primed for this shift. Advancing beyond APs will allow us to make our vision of academic excellence even more central and more real for students. With our own, internally designed, advanced curriculum, we join some of the most prestigious independent schools in the country while also helping our students to succeed in college admissions, in college, and in their lives.
Michael Ulku-Steiner, Head of School

“In every AP class, there are moments where you want to dive deeper in something but the schedule doesn’t allow it.”

 — Upper School Student
“I love the idea of getting rid of APs and gearing classes more toward creativity than just getting through the curriculum.

 — Upper School Student
The competitive side of ‘How many APs do you have?’ That’s toxic. It should be, 'How much do you love your classes? What suits your interests best?' 

 — Upper School Student
APs are really holding back the school … [they] are not a proxy for great classes.

 — Upper School Student

Real-World Relevance + Pillars of Excellence

Designing for Challenge and Choice

An internally designed, academically rigorous curriculum that emphasizes choice and real-world relevance is what students crave. We’ve seen them express that desire through a huge uptick in registrations for interdisciplinary, independent study courses that put them in the driver's seat. 

An academic task force comprising Durham Academy’s Associate Head of School for Academics, Upper School director, academic leaders, college counselors and directors of diversity, equity and engagement, enrollment management and strategic initiatives have defined and designed the structure and courses for DA’s Advanced Upper School curriculum — outlining essential knowledge and skills for each subject, as well as prerequisites, scope and sequence. 

Several Advanced courses are being piloted in the 2023–2024 school year, with a full transition to the Advanced curriculum in 2024–2025. A two-year runway for curriculum development has allowed us to develop a fleet of Advanced courses that emphasize:

  • Rigor

  • Interdisciplinarity

  • Student inquiry

  • Depth over breadth

  • Independent problem solving

  • Experiential learning

  • Sustained research

  • Global relevance 

  • Authentic demonstrations of learning 

Some Advanced courses in subjects like math or world languages retain many of the components of their AP predecessors. All of DA’s Advanced courses will be free from faculty limitations of teaching to a test and student limitations of only learning concepts and ideas as defined by that test. We are able to maximize our teaching talent and empower our students to engage in the kind of creative and independent work that will propel their success in college and beyond — no matter what careers they pursue — and free them from the tension that many of them have felt to fill their transcripts with AP courses rather than pursue what fascinates them.

AP Courses

Teachers Emphasize:

  • Breadth over depth
  • Fast pace
  • Teaching to a test

Students Learn To:

  • Synthesize vast amounts of complex material
  • Digest information at a breakneck pace


  • Short-term, temporary learning
Advanced Courses

Teachers Emphasize:

  • Depth over breadth
  • Student inquiry
  • Global relevance
  • Independent problem-solving

Students Learn To:

  • Synthesize complex information
  • Apply knowledge and skills to real life
  • Engage in topics of genuine interest
  • Create authentic demonstrations of learning


  • Enduring, long-lasting learning


College Endorsements

Standing Out in a Crowd

Durham Academy is known and respected nationally by colleges and universities, and they understand the value and benefits of advancing beyond APs. In a recent survey of DA’s five-year college matriculation list, admissions officers from across the country used phrases like “very strong applicants,” “prepared for success,” “excellent,” “a known quantity” and “wonderful members of society” to describe our students and indicated consistent support for this move.


college admissions reps voiced support for DA's move away from APs in fall 2022 visits.

An internally designed, Advanced Upper School curriculum creates courses of equal and more challenging rigor, providing what 21st century students need and colleges want, and providing more opportunity for our students to distinguish themselves.

“We want students who are passionate about their studies and courses. Beyond AP allows students to develop this sense of academic curiosity that will make them successful.”

 — Boston University
“Duke respects the decisions each school makes concerning its curriculum and how it responds to the interests of its faculty and students. If a school elects to offer advanced-level courses in lieu of Advanced Placement we will certainly take that into account in our understanding of the rigor of the curriculum.”

 — Duke University
“I have seen more schools make this transition and it has not hurt students in the admissions process.”

 — Kenyon College

College admissions offices know that Durham Academy prepares students for college and beyond. That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to Durham Academy through my [previous] role as UNC-Chapel Hill’s Undergraduate Admissions Office. In the college admissions world, Durham Academy students are consistently recognized for their strong writing skills, analytical thinking and creative problem-solving. These skills will be further developed and strengthened through the creation of this new and more innovative curriculum.
DA Senior Dean of College Counseling Jazmin Garcia Smith

Timeline and Trajectory

DA’s journey to advancing beyond APs began in 2017 with two reflective questions:

1) What do we want our graduates to be able to do? Answer

2) What could threaten DA’s success in college admissions? Answer: a stagnant curriculum.

Those questions guided multi-year horizontal and vertical curriculum alignment efforts. The more we built and aligned our curricular goals, the more we realized how incompatible they were with the goals of the College Board and its AP courses. It also became clear that AP courses are not aligned with DA’s mission nor its Strategic Vision, in particular DA’s commitment to prepare our students for both college and their lives well after college. In 2024–2025, AP courses at Durham Academy will be fully replaced with DA’s own internally designed Advanced curriculum.

  • 2017: Pre-k-12 Curriculum Alignment Work
  • 2018: Enterprise Risk Management Committee Research
  • 2020: Advancing Beyond AP Task Force Formed
  • 2022: Board of Trustees endorses Advancing Beyond AP 
  • 2022–2023: Faculty professional development, curriculum development. Student/family/college admissions officers education.
  • 2023–2024: Advanced curriculum development — structure, prerequisites, scope and sequence. Pilots for eight Advanced courses.
  • 2024–2025: Fully sunset APs; fully implement Advanced courses.