Real-world learning reaches tipping point

An interview with Blue Valley CAPS Director Cory Mohn

The Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) is a high school innovation program where students participate in authentic, profession-based learning opportunities. CAPS programs exist across 19 states and three countries (U.S., Canada, and India). Actual employers mentor students in their workplace, and students use industry-standard tools to solve real-world problems.

Some strands offered include bioscience, engineering, medicine, and healthcare, to name a few. These learning environments allow participants to explore potential careers based on their passions, purpose, and strengths. CAPS adheres to five core values that guide each program: profession-based learning, professional skills development, self-discovery and exploration, entrepreneurial mindset, and responsiveness.

CAPS started in Kansas at the Blue Valley School district and has grown to five affiliates with five school districts sending students. Missouri has the largest program activity nationwide, with 21 affiliate programs and 69 school districts sending students.

Earlier this month, Aligned sat down with Corey Mohn, the executive director of the Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) and CAPS Network, to learn how CAPS is changing the way students and parents value work-based learning.

In layman’s terms, what does CAPS do for students?

The idea is we are fast-forwarding students past high school and college and dropping them into what would effectively be their first job by giving them a chance to work on work-based projects.

The program started in 2009 at Blue Valley; what has changed since then?

As we think about where we’ve come from and what’s coming in the future, I think the headline here is the ability to do this across a much broader set of players with more school districts and more business partners engaged. Organizing and facilitating a national network of schools has been rewarding as we continue to see acceleration about leading into career-connected and profession-based learning.

We hear a lot about real-world or project-based learning, but you have described it as profession-based; what’s the difference?

We’ve heard all about problem and project-based learning, and those are a fantastic foundation, but they also tend to be a little more simulated, a little more linear. On the other hand, profession-based takes the project-based learning and puts it on steroids by involving the business partner, the nonprofit, the folks out in the community.

What barriers have you faced trying to implement and grow CAPS programs?

The initial barrier was the belief that high school students could create value and that this approach was worthy of time and energy and, in some cases, money to get behind this. Another big barrier across all of our programs is what we would call the teacher mind shift. So it’s the idea to make sure an educator feels comfortable reaching out to business and industry and won’t be seen as an imposter and can frame it as a win-win partnership. A lot of that comes from the fact that most of our educators have never been out of school, and they haven’t had that exposure to people in industry.

How does the traditional school system jibe with an employer environment?

Often we mistake artifacts for absolutes. You start thinking about the way schools are structured and how many of these things did we decide and say, “This is the way we’re going to do it.” A great example of that are school schedules. How do we see past the fact that that’s just a man or woman-made structure? How do we get to the end goal and then create the system that makes the most sense? For example, we create three-period options where students can come over for about half of their day and do a deep dive. That way, every day, they’re getting two and a half hours to explore, as opposed to only having an hour whereby the time you get warmed up, it’s time to wrap up.

*Artifacts are things like books, keyboards, schedules, school classroom layouts. Absolutes are things we cannot change.

Schools operate on a system of standards and credits; what is your advice for someone who sees structure as a barrier?

Well, reverse engineer the standards and have students work on authentic projects. Empower the students and have them track their work. Then, when you get towards the end, if you see things that you haven’t covered, that’s when you make some direct connection and say, okay, how can we work on a project that would get you these other standards? Or how do we maybe do some direct instruction around things that just aren’t going to flesh out in a project? It’s a different way of thinking, right. It sounds messy and like a lot of work, but honestly, it’s fun and empowering.

How do parents feel about the potential trade-offs between their kids spending time in CAPS versus things like AP courses?

In the beginning, there was a lot of tension inside the system with parents. They mainly said, “Why would I sacrifice three periods of my kid’s day to move them away from weighted courses and AP to throw them into something that sounds like a glorified version of Vo-Tech. So we had to prove that this was a rigorous experience that also added relevance. Now that more than ever, we have parents that are upset if their kids can’t figure out how to schedule CAPS because they feel like their kids are at a disadvantage if they haven’t had this experience.

What was the tipping point for greater parent acceptance?

It came down to a couple of things. First, it was an awakening for students that the end of their school experience didn’t have to be a time when engagement plummets because you already know your next step. For example, I already knew where I was going to college in my senior year, so I spent a lot of time playing cards in class and goofing around with my friends. I missed a ton of opportunities. The interesting thing we hear from parents over and over is, “my son or daughter is talking to me again.” They’re working with a startup entrepreneur or a nonprofit, and they’re doing meaningful work. When they go home, and they want to talk about it. And it’s recreated the dinnertime conversation with kids. When parents see that, it’s like, ‘okay, I get this, this is amazing, it’s the right thing.’

Does the CAPS program help students get into college?

I think colleges are looking for differentiated experiences with their students and they’re less looking at the commodity game of just looking at class rank and ACT. Applications have questions about how you have deployed yourself in your community, like public service or experiences that were most meaningful to you. Over and over, I have had students say that their college essays wrote themselves because they write about what they did for their clients through CAPS.

What do CAPS programs need to grow?

You need a champion in your district or your region who won’t take no for an answer and is willing to crash through the walls or jump over and around them. That’s an absolute must. And you need a business community that wants to do this. CAPS has grown from the grassroots up and been highly effective because we’ve allowed it to be owned locally with some support from the network. I think there is a place for states to provide some incentivization that could enable growth to scale faster by piloting CAPS and connecting them to a university with the idea of building a link between K-12 and the post-secondary pipeline. States willing to put a little skin in the game through incentives could see rapid or continued growth by funding to put a stamp on and validate the model.