Early Lessons From The Real World Learning Initiative

The Real World Learning Initiative, sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, is the largest and most promising regional high school improvement project in the country. With 100 high schools in six counties in Missouri and Kansas, the goal is that by the end of the decade every student will graduate with a diploma that prepares them for future work and learning having accumulated one or more experiences valued by employers and higher education (called Market Value Assets, or MVA):

  • Work experiences: internships and client-connected projects
  • College credit: at least three classes
  • Industry recognized credentials
  • Entrepreneurial experiences: starting a business or launching an initiative

The first cohort of about 60 schools in 15 districts received grants in the summer of 2019 to support a planning year and began implementing their plans in the 2020/21 school year.

As the Kansas City Region continues to work and implement strategies around Real World Learning, it is important to reflect on what has already been learned to help inform future work.  The following reflections were given at the end of the planning year by the initial cohort of 16 districts and charter schools engaging in Real World Learning.


  • Collaborative relationships with district departments, other districts, community stakeholders, and business partners will be essential to the success of the initiative.  Collaboration between smaller, neighboring districts (micro-regions) helps leverage resources.
  • It is important to genuinely educate, inform and engage all district stakeholders – students, parents, teachers, school administrators, and board members – early in the planning process to help guide the design process and gain buy-in and a better understanding of the importance of Real World Learning.
  • Districts should look to revamp and integrate more Real World Learning accountability in all areas of their school system – budgeting, staffing, curriculum development, and student scheduling – in order to create innovative and sustainable change towards Real World Learning.
  • Districts should work to build student confidence in their work abilities and provide aggressive interventions to help students overcome barriers to MVA attainment.
  • Local and national exemplar visits help districts see best-practices in action and create a vision for what is possible in their own districts. 



  • Grandview: Collaborative relationships will be essential to the success of small districts. The establishment of a micro-region approach between Grandview, Hickman Mills, and Center School Districts has been invaluable. Embracing colleagues in neighboring districts has enabled the design teams to establish innovative programs that students would not otherwise have access to.
  • Hickman Mills: Collaboration equals greater access. By combining staffing, resources, and student interests from the three high schools in the South KC micro-region, the districts were able to create an articulated program that benefits all three districts. The district used this same type of thinking to further planning for the extended three-year plan, with the development of four additional shared pathways (Early College, Advanced Manufacturing, Performing Arts, and Public Safety).
  • Kansas City: Ongoing collaboration across district departments, as well as with external partners, enhances the work of Real World Learning.
  • North Kansas City: Districts want more opportunities to collaborate and share ideas with other districts in the region.
  • Raymore-Peculiar: Establishing mentor relationships between Real World Learning cohorts could strengthen the Design + Plan year. This peer-to-peer network will help provide context and guidance for the districts getting ready to enter the design and planning process. 


  • Center: It is important to involve the design team early in the planning process and meet routinely. This helps build cohesion and set the planning framework. Teachers should be included on the design team, as their involvement is paramount.
  • Fort Osage: Having the design team in place at the beginning of the design and planning phase of the Real World Learning high school design work is a critical element for success.
  • Kearney: It is important to have a diverse and passionate mix of design team members.  Having civic partners, businesses, teachers, students, and parents on the design team gave school staff a different perspective that has inspired new tactics and goals.


  • Fort Osage: Visits to exemplar high schools helps districts create a vision for the future.
  • North Kansas City: Exemplar high school visits illuminated the value of connecting content in classrooms. Connecting content across disciplines and specifically integrating content from career technical courses to the four core subjects can significantly increase the relevance of the concepts being taught in the core classroom.
  • Olathe: Finding the right school to visit can be essential to creating a shared understanding of Real World Learning. The visit to see the AASA “Redefining Ready” Initiative at Arlington Heights was mission-critical and made the concept “click” for the 20 district team members and two board of education members. It allowed them to truly see how they could ensure MVAs for all students.
  • Raymore-Peculiar: Involving school board members and building leadership in exemplar site visits is important. This helps them get excited about possible opportunities in Real World Learning and develop a vision for what they want it to look like in their district.
  • Shawnee Mission: Seeing something in action can be very beneficial to the planning process. School site visits were very valuable and included common takeaways that could translate into actionable items for the district.


  • Belton: Districts should look to revamp all areas of the district’s system in order to make sustainable change. To create a full transformation, each facet of the current system should be examined and modified, when needed, to progress toward the end goal. Each decision made or system implemented must be strategic and intentional to move closer to the desired outcome.  Budgeting, staffing, and structures should all be examined through the lens of “how will they assist in reaching the goal.”
  • Fort Osage: Involving staff and administrators in K-8, in addition to 9-12, in the high school design work helped to ensure a cohesive program for students that provides them with scaffolded opportunities to prepare for their futures.
  • Grandview: It is important to establish systems and processes early to ensure progress towards the district’s goals is realized. Without these, it can be very easy to find yourself a year down the road with a lot of exciting information and no actual change. Sustainable change must be systematic and can often be excruciatingly slow.
  • Liberty: Dream big and don’t be constrained by the budget and/or staffing. The district found ways to plan without being bogged down by budget and/or staffing constraints. With a focus on the shared end goal, preparing to start small, and creating steps to achieve the goal, the design team has confidence in succeeding.
  • Olathe: Accountability is important at all levels of the work. Accountability is important for building leaders, so they don’t prioritize other deadlines and items with more defined expectations. Including MVA goals in the strategic plan is key so that it holds the district accountable to not lose sight of the work. It will eventually be important for students to have ownership and accountability for their engagement with Real World Learning and their own MVA attainment process.


  • Kansas City: It is critical to establish baseline data and the development of mechanisms to track MVA attainment. Begin this process early so that you will know the starting point and how to build from there.
  • Lee’s Summit: Tracking MVA data at the individual student level requires a robust data collection and reporting system. The district will adopt a data portal that will provide a method to mine the data more quickly and timely for mentors, coaches, and career navigators to intervene and respond as necessary to individual students. This will truly help with personalizing a student’s individual plan to attain an MVA.
  • Olathe: MVA data is more complicated than it may seem at first. When originally calculating baseline MVA data, the district included duplicate students, therefore, the number of students attaining an MVA looked inflated. Once the data was corrected, trends around the importance of looking at subgroup data to identify disparities between different subgroups, particularly racial subgroups, became apparent. 


  • Center: Participation in Real World Learning by 100% of students in an urban setting will require the district to work intentionally to build the necessary academic and social-emotional supports. Districts must build the capacity to work individually and intensively with students to help them develop the skills and self-belief necessary for them to try new experiences and have success.
  • Independence: Students need varying levels of support and encouragement to succeed in Real World Learning initiatives.  The district is intentionally building interventions to help students overcome the barriers they face and support them to graduate and attain MVAs; these interventions include graduation coaches and the Bridge program.
  • Lee’s Summit: There are inequities between the subgroups of students who do and do not take advantage of any of the numerous Career and Technical Education programs offered. The district identified the need to enhance its access and equity plan’s focus on closing the MVA gap for subgroups of students categorized by gender, wealth, ethnicity, or logistics. Logistics refers to subsets of students who self-identify barriers (e.g. sports, activities, transportation, schedules, credits, etc.) that prevent them from attaining MVAs.


  • Belton: Empowering stakeholders to “own” the school transformation process is critical. Take time to educate staff, parents, and students on the importance of Real World Learning work from the beginning. Simply having people “buy-in” or “comply” will not be enough to make the work transformative and sustainable.
  • Hogan Preparatory Academy/DeLaSalle: It is crucial for the district to be able to articulate how the student’s day-to-day experience will be affected by the Real World Learning high school redesign. This messaging and vision can help with getting teacher, parent, and student buy-in.
  • Liberty: Stakeholders must not only understand the goal of ensuring each student is college and/or career ready when they walk across the stage for graduation, they must be a vital part of the work. Students and parents must have a voice in what they want school to look like. Staff must be a part of the planning. Business partners need to provide feedback to districts on the readiness/success of students who become employees. All stakeholders must understand the importance of Real World Learning to infuse it inside and outside of the classroom.
  • Shawnee Mission: School reform is a long road and changing a culture that has been ingrained for generations will take time. Communicating with parents, students, staff and the wider community will be a key aspect of engaging more of our students in Real World Learning. All stakeholders must understand the “why” and the benefits for the students and community before a substantial change can be made.


  • Independence: There is a need for more social-emotional training and counselor supports at the comprehensive high schools. This is essential to the success of all students, but particularly for Bridge students when they return to their comprehensive high schools; consistency and continuity of services is key.
  • North Kansas City: Exemplar high school visits reinforced the importance of enrolling students in college- and career-focused pathways before reaching high school. Students start becoming more disengaged as a freshman and the enrollment in a pathway creates relevance, a small learning community, and a sense of belonging during their high school experience.


  • Independence: It is important, as educators, to consistently ask students questions and actively listen to their responses. While working with the graduation coaches in the Bridge program, students were honest and brave in how they were able to articulate why they are “opting out” of their own education. They were able to identify and own the distractions they faced in the educational setting, which allowed educators to better serve these students.
  • Kansas City: The inclusion and integration of student, parent, and teacher voice is critical to the success of Real World Learning and the attainment of MVAs. Strategies to include student voice must be specific and intentional.


  • Hickman Mills: The use of educators to teach MVA-based courses can be flexible and look different from program to program. It is important to understand when there is an opportunity to grow staff capacity and ownership versus using third-party instructors.
  • Hogan Preparatory Academy/DeLaSalle: There is a need to expand capacity with staff who can ensure more students attain quality MVAs. Moving forward for the new school year, the schools plan to establish a new science position, MVA coach, and Freshmen 101 coach to specifically meet student needs in attaining MVAs in a comprehensive and coherent manner.
  • Kearney: Teacher voice and choice in the direction of the district is key and will bolster the success of the initiative. The Real World Learning initiative has given teachers a new platform to help shape the future of the district. District staff understands better than ever the importance of these kinds of experiences because they have witnessed how transformative they can be for students. This new awareness and understanding have helped inspire many more classroom teachers to bring Real World Learning experiences into their curriculum.
  • Raymore-Peculiar: Having a designated staff member to manage business relationships is crucial to the success of this initiative. It has allowed the onboarding of a large number and variety of business partners in a very short period of time because this person’s role is solely focused on that task.  Also, hiring someone into the role who had existing business connections has been helpful.

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The bulk of this copy was drafted by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation team and has been published on GettingSmart.com with their permission.

Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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