A new building in the Shawnee Mission School District is devoted to the tenet that “relevance makes rigor possible,” according to Center for Academic Achievement Principal Christy Ziegler.
“When (students) see the (professional) connection to what they want to do, it makes them connect and they go deeper into learning,” said Ziegler, who is not only the Center’s principal but also an assistant district superintendent.
The building at 8200 W. 71st St. in Overland Park opened in August and is home to five of the district’s six Signature Programs. Three hundred students from each of the five high schools are bused over daily for either a morning or afternoon session.
Two of the Signature Programs have already enjoyed time in the spotlight, the Culinary Arts program and Project Blue Eagle (not housed in the Center for Academic Achievement), but the other programs are just as focused on college and career readiness.
Signature Programs in biotechnology, engineering, medical health sciences, and animation and game design are all offered to district high school students. The introductory courses are taught in the traditional high schools beginning in ninth grade. Sometimes, as early as 10th grade, students can qualify for courses at the Center for Academic Achievement.
Students are not required to make a commitment to a particular academic track in order to participate in the Signature Program classes. In fact, Ziegler said she sees the programs as a way for students to learn what they are interested in before spending thousands of dollars figuring that out at a university.
Shawnee Mission West senior Rachel Silverstein began taking biotech courses when they were offered at her home school. She won first place in molecular biology/chemistry and health sciences during the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair last spring.
Silverstein is using her time at the Center to develop immunotherapy treatments using a certain type of immune cells to treat cancer. She’s been volunteering in a lab at the University of Kansas Hospital since last summer and says that, compared to a regular classroom, the labs at the Center are “a better reflection of what it’s like in the field and it’s also a lot more self-directed.”
That’s exactly the student response Ziegler hoped to hear — that project-based learning as well as real-world connection to industry is intensifying students’ learning experiences and giving them a greater understanding of the fields in which they’re interested.
She pointed out that students often comment that they’d like to be engineers, without realizing how many types of engineering exist. The district solved that by hosting an engineering fair with 20 guest visitors representing multiple specialties.
Engineering students in one course are able to test for an industry certificate in computer-aided design, or CAD, which might give them an edge over other young applicants to engineering internships or college programs.
“Those credentials are part of what we’re trying to build up across our programs,” Ziegler said, “so the kids have multiple opportunities to have a credential and industry-recognized certificate before they leave us.”
Similarly, students taking courses in medical science can take a class that allows them to test for a certified nursing certificate, or CNA, which qualifies them to work in long-term care facilities or hospitals even while still in high school.
Teacher Connie Gandy said that the medical science program lays the groundwork for careers or further training in animal science, physical therapy, nursing, pharmaceuticals, medical-device design, and soon sports medicine.
Furthermore, the Center is one of the only high schools in the nation that boasts an Anatomage Table, a life-sized digital dissection device. The table is like an enormous touch-screen computer that allows students to explore a body’s machinations down to the tiniest capillary. Users can label organs and create cross-sections of the brain at will.
Originally, Project Blue Eagle — the program for paramedics, firefighters, and law-related fields — was to be housed in the Center as well, but demand quickly outstripped space. The program has close to 1,000 students enrolled this semester.
Ziegler said administrators will be keeping a close eye on enrollment for the fall of 2018 to find out if a similar scenario will play out in one of the other programs.
She said that if the Center simply isn’t big enough, that’s a good problem to have.
“A lot of people are talking about human-centered design,” Ziegler said. “That’s our human-centered design based on what our kids are telling us they’re interested in. We build out those courses based on their interest.”