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Academic Life

Winterim Rube Goldberg Class

Deep, inquiry-based study for the 21st century. Trinity's Upper School teaches skills important for success in the 21st century “idea” economy. Collaborative, problem-based courses like robotics or Model UN global studies embody this kind of learning. Other courses embed such experiences in their curriculum—for instance, designing a museum exhibit or researching a year-long “big question” for an honors humanities class, building a Rube Goldberg machine for a physics class, or directing a one-act play for a Capstone project.

Throughout, Trinity’s Upper School engages students in a rich liberal arts and STEM curriculum that values 21st century habits of thought: depth and understanding, Socratic discussion, inquiry and self-discovery, self-reflection, eloquent expression, critical and creative thinking, and the classical tools of learning. This study, grounded in Christian faith and practice, helps cultivate transformative personal and intellectual growth.

High academic expectations, but not an AP school. Our distinctive learning environment would not be possible if we were an AP school. Advanced Placement courses often necessitate a pace of study that emphasizes coverage, not depth, and hijacks the other programs and opportunities that, we believe, offer high schoolers important opportunities for growth. Students who have transferred into our Upper School talk about their new freedom to choose from our many electives, where before they would have worried that such classes would cause them to fall behind in the race for college admission.

College admission offices assess applicants according to the courses available to them at their secondary schools; in other words, our students are not penalized for not taking AP courses. Nonetheless, a handful of AP exams align with our program, and students with B+ or higher honors grades in related Trinity classes regularly do well on them. In the past three years, 84% of our students' scores were 3 or higher, and 64% were 4 or 5.

The absence of AP courses at Trinity does not mean a lack of scholarly challenge and rigor, and our upper-level studies culminate in classes such as advanced physics, calculus I and II, Spanish or Latin V, and senior-level honors seminars in English and history. It’s helpful to know, too, that other schools have charted the same no-AP-courses path, among them some fine day and boarding schools like Exeter.

Independent schools don't always offer separate college prep and honors levels of core classes. But our Upper School does. This kind of differentiation helps engage students at the levels appropriate to them and meets the academic needs of a broader, more diverse range of learners. All 90 of our courses are taught at least at a challenging college-prep level, and about 30 are offered at an advanced, honors level.

Formation in a community of learners. Teenagers yearn for purpose and place, and the high school years are ones of identity-building. The learning environment in which this occurs can make a big difference. Trinity’s Upper School, anchored by a superior faculty, provides students a rare combination of high academic and personal expectations, unhurried reflection and playfulness, and loving, prayerful Christian faith. At Trinity, the variety and depth of curricular and cocurricular opportunities for exploration, challenge, service, and leadership help ignite the transformations that characterize these years.

Our Upper School has embraced the truth that a highly successful college-prep program needn't be a grueling, enervating race—that, on the contrary, a thoughtfully paced course of rich study and cocurricular involvements can and should be joyful and life-giving. We believe that these four years, if occurring in a break-neck school culture of product-based achievement, impede this growth, encourage academic shortcuts, and short-circuit creativity, complex problem solving, and collaboration.

Distinctives of the Upper School


Humanities. In the interdisciplinary great books tradition, all students in grades 9–11 explore ancient and modern ideas, literature, history, art, and faith. Humanities classes meet twice the time allotted to other disciplines and satisfy graduation requirements for both English and history. Students in Honors Humanities engage yearlong with an approved ‘big question’ and, through substantial research and guided by their teacher, produce sophisticated essays, reflections in other art forms, and public Symposium defenses of their conclusions.

Physics-First Science and Math

Physics-First Science and Math. Beginning with a modeling-based physics course, Trinity offers honors and college prep laboratory courses in Physics (9th), Chemistry (10th), Biology (11th), and college prep and honors electives in all three branches of science (11th and 12th). Mathematics study emphasizes inquiry, complex understanding, and mastery of core competencies and includes honors and college prep courses in Algebra through Statistics and Calculus I and II.


Robotics. In a team-based program that includes a course and outside work, students serve as mentors, coaches, and project supervisors; study computer programming; design artificial intelligence behaviors; and build robots to compete in FIRST Tech Challenge competitions. Trinity hosts a regional competition each winter, and its teams consistently place high and win awards at state and world competitions, including the Think award at the 2011 World competition in St. Louis.

Service Learning and Leadership Classes

Service Learning and Leadership Classes. Through partnerships with local nonprofits, Trinity’s Upper School offers service opportunities that help students examine complex issues such as hunger, homelessness, environmental conservation, and illiteracy. By serving others, students discover the fruits of humble, Christ-like service, deepen their faith, and learn servant-leadership skills. Courses include significant service components.

Internships in Leadership Development

Internships in Leadership Development. This high-impact program in leadership development partners select students with faculty advisors who mentor and guide them in important leadership positions. To date, these include co-teaching our Robotics Apprenticeship class and co-chairing our Student Life committee.

Senior Capstone

Senior Capstone. A graduation requirement, this program features semester-long independent work, guided by a faculty advisor and an off-campus mentor, on a problem or question from a discipline of the student’s choosing. Seniors’ topics have ranged from constructing a robotic arm for a UNC-CH marine lab to recording a CD of original music to studying the impact of humanitarian contributions on Third World development. Many Capstone projects have helped sharpen seniors’ college focus and to distinguish themselves in the college application process.


Winterim. This program involves all upper schoolers in a week and a half of extended block study of topics outside the standard curriculum—a time to try something new or go into further depth in a special area of interest such as ballroom dancing, volunteer service in Durham, the history of the American civil rights movement, or sports analytics.

Foundations Studies

Foundations Studies. Trinity offers a “Foundations” level study in Spanish and in Humanities for a limited number of motivated students with qualifying documentation of more significant learning differences. For Humanities, the program requires family-provided, Trinity-approved tutoring, which allows the student to remain at school all day rather than split time between Trinity Upper School and the Hill Center. Humanities Foundations students attend the same Humanities class with other students, but their reading, writing, and assessments are modified through a close partnership of teacher and tutor. For their language requirement, Foundations students may take Spanish Foundations (modified Spanish I and II courses, supported with a family-provided tutor), and are exempt from taking the third level of Spanish normally required for graduation. Alternatively, they may take three years of American Sign Language; Trinity provides the curriculum and families provide the tutor.