Real projects. Real responsibility. Real contributions.

In 2009, the Blue Valley Schools in Kansas launched their Center for Advanced Professional Studies. Unlike traditional trade or vocational schools that historically have prepared students for ‘blue collar’ jobs, the CAPS model immerses students in ‘white collar’ professional settings. Looking for ways to provide high school students with authentic professional experiences, districts in other states soon joined Blue Valley’s CAPS network, including Waukee APEX here in Iowa.

The APEX model is powerful because students do genuine interdisciplinary work within real institutions. Their hosts – and clients – are corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and other community organizations such as hospitals and small businesses. Instead of engaging in contrived simulations in classrooms, students immediately make authentic contributions to their local communities and gain both valuable professional experience and college credit while still in high school.

Waukee APEX has several strands, thus allowing students to tap into different interests or skill sets. For example, in the Business, Technology, and Communications strand, students have developed marketing, copywriting, photography, videography, and graphic design skills by working on advertising and informational campaigns and planning special events for Des Moines businesses and government agencies. In the BioScience and Value-Added Agriculture strand, students have learned about global agriculture, life science systems, and food policy while working with the Blank Park Zoo and the World Food Prize. In the Engineering strand, students have partnered with On With Life, a nonprofit that specializes in brain damage rehabilitation, and Iowa State University to create a ‘sensory garden’ for patients and worked with Hy-Vee to redesign its corporate headquarters and store parking lots and to make its stores more energy efficient.

Students in other APEX strands are learning different workplace skills. In the Finance and Insurance strand, students have worked with industry professionals to index and analyze key metrics for ranking nursing home facilities, raised money for and marketed a school district’s slip-trip-fall risk mitigation project, and developed analytical models that help consumers know when to buy indexed or term life insurance. In the Information Management Design strand, students have set up servers, built databases, and designed apps for strength and conditioning coaches and athletic departments. And in the Exploration of Health Sciences and Medicine strand, students have designed lab protocols to mimic various types of pulmonary pathologies for Drake University pharmacy students, created a recruitment video for the Mercy College of Health Sciences surgical technology program, worked with a Veterans Affairs psychologist to design memory books that assist veterans with traumatic brain injuries, researched high school students’ understandings of the dangers of tanning, and conducted an observational analysis to help increase the task efficiency of UnityPoint Health nurse navigators.

In all of these settings, APEX students are expected to act like working professionals, not teenagers. They’re expected to take on real tasks and assume adult workplace responsibility. In the process they stretch and grow and gain new skills that can’t be learned in traditional classrooms. The CAPS model illustrates the tremendous untapped potential of our own communities.

What could your school do to tap into the expertise, mentorship, and authenticity of the professionals around you?


Image credit: Waukee APEX student Brandon Vacco created this infographic to highlight the work that was done in Fall 2015 by students in the Communications strand.

8 Responses to “Real projects. Real responsibility. Real contributions.”

  1. I think that real world experience is a exceptional motivator for our students. In my experience in college, I took part in service learning program. We earned course credit for the time we spent implementing intervention programs for students. Afterward, we were expected to reflect on the experience. We were given different areas of focus each time. Creating REAL experiences was extremely motivational and I like the different implementations that you have shared here. What kind of ways would you think to implement something similar to this in an Elementary setting?

  2. And real students have been doing real projects, shouldering real responsibility, and making real contributions in real vocational programs for the last century.

    • Yes, absolutely. Lots to learn from other, ‘non-core’ areas of our schools…

      • Scott, that is a disgusting comment. It is disrespectful of the students who choose to participate in vocational programs and of the teachers who work with them. Perhaps my point was lost. I was pointing out that the “academic” wing of the school has finally caught up to what has been going on in another part of the school for many years. I may be extra sensitive to that type of slur, but have put up with it for an entire career and will no longer refrain from saying crap when I see and hear it. The kids who participate in vocational programs are every bit as much a part of the core as anyone else.

        • Sorry my comment offended, Cal. I was trying to reinforce your statement that classes traditionally viewed as ‘core’ have much to learn from important, but traditionally viewed as elective, strands of our schools. I’m happy to edit my post and use whatever term you’d like to suggest instead.

          We’re on the same page in terms of intent. Help me say it better. 🙂

  3. Scott,
    Thank you so much for sharing about such wonderful programs. As a teacher in special education, we send many students out to vocational placements in order to help model and practice the skills needed to work in a variety of industries including food service, hospitality, culinary arts, wood working and horticulture. By providing this exposure and practice in high school, our teachers are able to reinforce skills in a safe environment so that the student is well prepared when they graduate. I’ve always wondered why this opportunity was not available to “general” education students. So many kids graduate and have no clue what they want to do with their lives. These students often go to college, switch their majors four or five times, and come out just as confused as when they started but with tens of thousands of dollars of debt! By providing these opportunities, we are able to give students more exposure to different career paths and link the knowledge gained at school with real world tasks. Additionally, if students are interested in what they are doing and can see their work positively effecting others, they may be more excited and invested is projects both inside and out of the classroom. I would think the industries would also gain a wealth of knowledge and some fresh ideas from these students. Are the students able to select their own placement or is it assigned? Also, do you know if there is any data in regards to a possible decline of college or high school dropout rates linked to these programs?

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