At first sight, the three-story building at 7501 W. 149th Terrace in Overland Park looks like a small business. It’s a sprawling, fairly new glass structure with a few flag poles and a parking lot.
But a step inside reveals a different picture. There are high school students flying remote-control airplanes in the lobby as part of an aviation class. Other students are spread out on the second and third floors, interviewing subjects as part of a media class. They are dressed in business casual attire, because although this building is not technically a business, it fosters the environment of one.
The students, all from various Blue Valley high schools, are part of the Center for Advanced Professional Studies program, or CAPS.
Across the road from CAPS, in a repurposed middle school, a song popular on the radio comes over the loudspeaker as other Blue Valley high school students switch from one class to another, some taking a few minutes to play pool or ping pong in the lobby before the next period begins. There are former students’ signatures scrawled on the brick walls, signed to commemorate a high school graduation — one that may not have happened had it not been for the program housed in this building, the Academy.
And a few minutes away, at Oak Hill Elementary, special education teacher Colleen Mazzei sits in front of a half-moon shaped desk as seven students with special needs are gathered around, some sitting independently, others with a paraprofessional or speech pathologist. It’s group instruction, the first lesson on objects as Mazzei holds up a flashcard for students to identify: a paint brush. Each student’s disability is different, but each is addressed through Mazzei’s teaching strategies, part of the district’s nationally renowned approach to special education.
Each program, though distinct from the other, is an example of the Blue Valley School District’s strategy to tailor learning to each student’s needs. Whether it’s a student ready to explore career options, a high schooler at risk of not graduating, or a student with special education needs, they are all accounted for and addressed.
In a county where education is prized and lauded for its excellence, the Blue Valley School District stands out. The district, which stretches across 91 square miles of Johnson County, has 34 schools and educates more than 20,000 students, growing from just a few thousand 30 years ago.
• For the 10th year in a row, Blue Valley’s schools have made Adequate Yearly Progress, a federal measurement based on state testing. Blue Valley is the only district with more than 20,000 students in the nation to achieve AYP 10 consecutive years for the district as a whole and for each of its schools.
• All five high schools in Blue Valley were named in a Newsweek list of top public high schools in America for 2012. Shawnee Mission East was the only other high school in Johnson County on the list.
• Twelve Blue Valley schools received the Governor’s Achievement Award in 2012. The award recognizes top performing schools in the state of Kansas.
• Blue Valley High was named a 2012 Blue Ribbon School, a federal award only given to 269 schools in the country last year.
• 97 percent of Blue Valley students met the standards of the Kansas Math Assessment, with 97.5 meeting standards for the Kansas Reading Assessment.
“I think the general feel outside about Blue Valley probably focuses on the academic, because everybody sees our scores and what we produce, and that’s obviously a really important focus for us,” Superintendent Tom Trigg said. “But you have to get on the inside to see the relationship piece. You have to get on the inside to see the relevance that we’re creating that helps to springboard that academic success.”
That academic success clearly has made an impression on the community. Voters last year passed a $271 million bond issue for the district, which included $167 million to improve buildings and $84 million to upgrade technology. The technology upgrades have a significant presence in the classrooms, with the use of smart boards and microphones for teachers to enhance lessons.
The safety of the schools has also been a priority for the district, as entrances to most buildings have been updated to require visitors to visit the office first before entering the school.
In 2012, Blue Valley bought the former First Family church complex, a 125,000-square-foot property on 51 acres in Overland Park. The district plans to use the space for early childhood classrooms, professional development and offices for special education.
Construction is anticipated to begin toward the end of June, said Al Hanna, deputy superintendent. The renovated complex is expected to be up and running by August 2014.
“We’re a very focused district,” Trigg said. “We have a strategic plan and it has two goals. Academic success and personal growth are our hallmarks. That’s really what we’re all about.”
A self-employed accountant who also serves on the parent advisory finance committee, former board member Lori Hisle has seen the preaching put into practice in Blue Valley.
“The district is very much aware of the community, how it impacts the community and what their role is,” Hisle said. “Decisions are made about students and what is best for them.”
In 2008, the Blue Valley CAPS program began as an idea from superintendent Trigg, translated in a 25-page document. There was no $12.5 million building or business partners to drive the curriculum. In its first year, CAPS had about 250 kids in satellites, sent to businesses to learn about the workforce and explore areas of interest.
Today, the program has around 950 students enrolled with hundreds of business partners and investors. The teens, most of whom are juniors and seniors at the five Blue Valley high schools, leave their home high school for two and a half hours each day, either morning or afternoon, to step outside the box and learn by doing.
“The picture is, why are we doing this? Because these kids are ready for college,” said CAPS executive director Donna Deeds. “What we’re trying to do is give them a window into what’s in the future and to give them an edge, because it’s darn competitive out there.”
The classes offered revolve around business, bioscience, engineering and human services. Within those strands, the students are offered a number of courses. In the business sector, students can choose to take filmmaking, iMedia, global business, interactive design or technology solutions. The engineering section houses aerospace engineering, robotics, even digital electronics.
In Foundations of Medicine 2, a class offered under the bioscience sector, students have the opportunity to work with iStan, a patient simulator about the price of a new car. The fake human lies flat on a hospital bed in a room mirrored to look like a room in a hospital. There are IVs, and the students are required to wear scrubs.
Each day, iStan takes on a different identity with different features to match. Today, the simulator’s name is Ann Emic. (She has a low red blood cell count, if you couldn’t tell). She has a blond wig on, with a Victoria’s Secret bra underneath her gown to give her some extra oomph. Yesterday iStan’s name was Hardy Tack. Some days the simulator even wears fake tattoo sleeves. It blinks and breathes as if it were human. It reacts to medicine and specific procedures.
There’s a two-way mirror in the classroom that teacher Robin Bacon sits behind to observe her students. The minute they walk in the room, they are no longer high school students, but professionals being counted on to diagnose and assess a medical condition.
Down below, in the lobby, Blue Valley North senior Chris Wall watches as his classmates fly RC airplanes throughout the building. The aerospace engineering class has been using the nose cone of an airplane, retro fitting it with equipment to see how airplanes work.
“I definitely like how it’s project-based,” Wall said of CAPS. “I’m doing things that will apply to what I want to do. It’s more than just sitting in a class doing homework.”
As part of the Teacher Education class, Blue Valley Southwest student Danielle Stoops is creating a computerized math game, researching how technology and games can be used in the classroom to benefit kids.
In the back of the CAPS building, what sounds like construction is really the Computer Integrated Manufacturing class, where Blue Valley North senior Joseph Thackeray is designing 3D chess pieces to be printed out of plastic.
“You have a lot more freedom than you do in a traditional class,” Thackeray said. “It’s helped me get a better grip on what I want to do in the future, which is be an engineer.”
Instead of waiting until college to figure out what they want to do, students in CAPS are jumping ahead of the pack and working with businesses to provide products and services in demand now.
“The theme here is to align directly with industry,” Deeds said. “So, it’s taking a high schooler and trying to make sure that everything we put around and in front of them is aligned to where they think they’re going as a profession. All of the opportunities in this building and even in the business satellites are all high-demand, high-skilled jobs.
“We are literally emulating high-demand, high-skilled jobs. The emulation occurs with these very authentic labs, because those were driven out of industry,” Deeds said.
When Jackie Bradin began her sophomore year at Blue Valley Southwest High School, she was overwhelmed. She had moved from the small town of Drexel, Mo., and was in shock at just how big her new school was.
With more classmates than she was used to, Jackie shied from attention and wasn’t getting the one-on-one help she felt she needed from her teachers. She was constantly stressed about grades and homework and didn’t feel comfortable in her new environment.
After three semesters at Blue Valley Southwest, Jackie decided to try the Blue Valley Academy.
This January, Jackie entered the glass doors of the repurposed middle school as a junior and will continue her education there as a senior until she graduates.
“I was really surprised by how relaxed it is here,” Jackie said. “We don’t have bells, we have music that plays. We have long breaks between classes and we can just relax. The teachers are a lot more friendly here I think.”
A program for students at risk of not graduating, the Academy serves students in the 10th through 12th grades from all five Blue Valley high schools. Students who are struggling in their home high school are not required to go the Academy; instead, the decision involves consultation between counselors, parents, principals and students. The student has the final say as to whether they want to switch campuses.
The non-traditional high school program works on an eight-block schedule, alternating odd and even days. Classes begin at 9 a.m. and end at 2:45 p.m. The Academy’s curriculum is no different than the regular high schools, though students are able to complete a full course in nine weeks. Each nine-week quarter is equal to one semester.
Classrooms at the Academy are smaller, ranging from 10 to 12 students. The four courses required for graduation, communication arts, math, social studies and science, are the focus, but electives, such as art and PE, also are offered. The program averages about 115 students total, with close to a 97 percent graduation rate.
“It’s all about relationships,” Valerie Jennings, principal of the Academy, said. “Our teachers build trusting relationships with the students. We’re able to get to know the students, and they’re able to get to know us.”
Some classrooms are quiet, while others, like culinary arts, are filled with excited discussions and laughter.
Today, students in the cooking class are sifting through ingredients in the pantry, trying to decide on a dish to make to get rid of goods before spring break. Two girls in the corner, hardly quiet, are busy cooking fried egg sandwiches, practicing their sandwich flipping techniques.
The individualized learning at the Academy puts its students at ease when the pressure of a larger class setting couldn’t.
“A lot of our kids have gaps in their learning because they have really turned off and shut down long before they get here,” Jennings said. “So that 75-minute block, with having the teachers there and small classes, allows our teachers to really understand their learning patterns and then individualize and personalize that learning for them.”
Since entering the Academy, Jackie’s grades and attendance have improved. Going to class is no longer a point of stress, but something she looks forward to. She’s comfortable here, where she can relax and focus on learning.
“I’ve definitely done better here than I did at my home high school,” Jackie said. “I understand things more and actually get the help I need.”
The reputation of Blue Valley special education programs is so high that it is not uncommon for families to move across the state, sometimes even the nation, to give their child a better education.
“There’s not a week that goes by that we don’t get a phone call from someone out of district, out of state that is moving here specifically because they heard about our special education classrooms,” Joan Robbins, director of special education for the district, said.
In Oak Hill Elementary’s FOCUS classroom, one of many special education programs in Blue Valley, teacher Colleen Mazzei develops a specific curriculum for each student based on her observations and assessments. She consults with physical, speech and occupational therapists who give her input in how to supplement her teaching.
“The other thing I try to do is figure out what motivates each child, and then I tailor what motivates them to their day,” she said.
For some students, it’s a verbal encouragement. For others, it may be a pat on the back.
During the group lesson, Mazzei moves from teaching about objects to a color graphing activity. She holds up flash cards of various colors, asking each child what color it is and assisting them if they need it. One student uses an assisted communication device about the size of an iPad. The technology stores thousands of words with pictures to accompany them, so the student with communication challenges can identify the answer to a question by pressing the icon.
She targets the skills of each student as she speaks across the table. With one student, she worked to get her to visually engage while answering. With another, she worked on color identification. From her expressions to her tone of voice and interaction, Mazzei is able to alter her teaching techniques for the individual needs of each child.
After the group lesson, the students break into smaller groups, where they work with a paraprofessional on separate activities. Throughout the day, the students, ranging from kindergartners to fifth-graders, will also spend time in general education classrooms.
“Our students are general education students first and foremost,” Robbins said. “They’re part of the school community. They’re involved. Yes, their learning needs are different from some of our other students, but they are first and foremost general education students.”
The FOCUS classroom specifically is designed to improve academic skills for students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities, while also developing independence and self-care. Mazzei will have some students for longer periods of the day, which gives her a chance to embed the skills they’re working on throughout the day.
Blue Valley also offers early childhood special education programs for children age 3-5. Those classrooms, though not a staple at every elementary, include developing peer models and look much like an average preschool. The instruction, however, is differentiated for children with special needs.
ACCESS, a special education program for those who are 18-21, is designed to help students with special needs transition from school to life. The program works to help students develop vocation skills and work habits for future employment. Students are often sent into the community on job sites with a coach to gain first-hand experience.
No matter what needs the various special education programs at Blue Valley address, the focus of each always goes back to the student.
“My goal for each of them is to reach their maximum potential and also to be as independent of learners as they can,” Mazzei said. “We have a lot of fun. We celebrate as much as we can and just try to have fun because most importantly for my students, I want them to want to come to school. I want them to feel safe, I want them to feel comfortable, I want them to be ready and available to learn, and I want their families to feel comfortable sending their students to school.”
When Kathy Bennett’s son Ryan, who has autism, started at Stilwell Elementary in Blue Valley, he had less than 20 words in his vocabulary. She worried he would never talk.
Now 11 years old at Aubrey Bend Middle School, Ryan’s development through special education at Blue Valley has progressed significantly.
“We have seen them expand his vocabulary and provide him the confidence to interact socially,” Bennett said. “They’ve been very open to figuring out what is the best way to make him successful in the classroom.”