School districts nationwide are checking out Blue Valley’s CAPS program

Annie Morse (center) was a senior at Blue Valley Southwest in April when she worked on an apple pie cinnamon dessert pizza recipe with classmate Chloe Davis (left) in the Global Foods class at Blue Valley CAPS.
Annie Morse (center) was a senior at Blue Valley Southwest in April when she worked on an apple pie cinnamon dessert pizza recipe with classmate Chloe Davis (left) in the Global Foods class at Blue Valley CAPS. The Kansas City Star

The Blue Valley School District’s innovative CAPS program is drawing ever more districts and communities yearning to create their own version of its intense marriage of education and industry.

This week, districts from near and far are gathering in Overland Park, knowing that the possibilities for their own programs are as varied and fast-changing as the business world they aim to please.

The CAPS playbook is already at work in outposts as far away as Park City, Utah, and Minnetonka, Minn.

None of 13 offspring programs or the dozens of prospective districts have such a gleaming educational palace as where Blue Valley houses the original Center for Advanced Professional Studies.

But that’s no matter, said Donna Deeds, a creator of the program who is now leading the same work for Kansas City area school districts in the Northland.

“Flexibility and customization” are the watchwords right there on the playbook’s mission and vision creation page.

“The common theme is a business-driven curriculum,” Deeds said. “But the beauty is in how they get there, being part of the community they serve.”

The seven Northland districts are collaborating in their program, setting up scattered classrooms in spaces provided by their industry partners in their shops and offices.

The Affton School District in south St. Louis County is gathering its CAPS students in the classroom and warehouse space of an STL Venture Works incubator that they share with 16 startup entrepreneurs, including beekeepers.

The students will be working alongside mentors in tech companies, engineering consultants and service agencies, said Travis Bracht, Affton assistant superintendent.

“They will be going there with the mission of completing a task that is as real as it gets,” he said.

Affton is launching its program this year with 30 students from its one high school of about 700 students, with designs of increasing to 100 and then collaborating with neighboring high schools to grow further.

The Northland program, which started with 28 students and five core business partners two years ago, is entering its third year, planning to serve 400 students with more than 240 business partners.

Blue Valley and its five high schools will be sending about 680 juniors and seniors to CAPS in its building near 151st Street and Metcalf Avenue. It opened in 2010.

CAPS’ work in many ways is a constant game of recruiting and matchmaking.

“It’s been a busy summer,” said Jennifer Collet, the business development specialist for Blue Valley CAPS.

Students have been enrolling into the program’s major strands of study, including biosciences, business and technology, engineering, human services, and medicine and health care. But just what they will be tackling remains to be seen.

Students have some say in the projects they choose, and instructors and mentors from the real world bring their own specialties, Collet said.

“We’re trying to make sure the pipeline is full (of business and industry partners) so we can parse out projects to students,” she said.

The business settings and authentic work imagined in CAPS programming has to go deeper than the career and real-world education that all high schools try to provide students, Bracht said.

“In essence, you feel like you have a job you are going to,” he said. “You report to an engineer. You have a place to be. And you know you are going to be professional when you are there.”

CAPS programming also demands constant revisions in curriculum and class offerings.

“The main premise is to stay completely aligned to the world of business and industry and medicine,” Deeds said. “And these worlds change rapidly and frequently. It’s never the same year to year.”

The business world has a vested interest in CAPS’ mission to grow a talented workforce, and many companies eagerly join in the work, she said. As the network of CAPS programs spreads throughout the Midwest and beyond, even more opportunities open for students and businesses.

“The education world and the business world working together to meet the needs of economic development is the only way to create healthy economic systems in the nation,” Deeds said.

“CAPS gives us a legitimate forum to ask (business): ‘What do you need?’ ‘Can you help us teach that?’ ‘Can you give us real projects?’”

Businesses and community groups from near and far also are sending participants to the gathering this week, not so much with set advice on how to make a CAPS work, Collet said, but to join an ongoing forum for all the questions that are sure to come.

“We’re going to learn from each other and celebrate this movement,” she said. “And when we get stuck on something, we’ll know someone to call.”