More Real World Learning in Kansas City

Key Points

  • Many of the participating KC schools have improved the number of students graduating with valuable experiences from a baseline of one-fifth to almost half.

  • This regional initiative has resulted in real world learning in elementary, middle and high school classrooms.

In the lower level of Grandview High, away from the crush of a busy passing period, a manufacturing lab hosts students working on a client project. These Grandview students are joined by peers from Center School District and Hickman Mills School District and are often accompanied by retired Honeywell engineers. The three southern Kansas City suburban districts, which serve about 13,000 diverse students, share a portfolio of real world learning pathways with transported access for students. 

Grandview superintendent Dr. Kenny Rodrequez (Missouri Superintendent of the Year) explains how the four career academies — health and engineering (both PLTW pathways), business and the arts — are adding client projects and dual enrollment courses. Grandview hosted the first PLTW engineering program in the area and their leadership encouraged regional growth to now over 95,000 students. Grandview Assistant Superintendent Prissy LeMay said Grandview elementary schools are adding more real world learning.

On recent visits to metro Kansas City high schools, we spotted evidence of more real world learning including more client-connected projects in core and elective courses, more internships and entrepreneurial experiences during and after school, and more dual credit courses and industry-recognized credentials.   

Summit Technology Academy (STA) is a next-gen career center in Lee’s Summit that opened in 2017 with the University of Central Missouri. It offers half-day experiences in five pathways: engineering, computer science, health, human services and natural resources (which is offered at a new location this year). Each pathway offers a career capstone project assessed for agency, authenticity, and articulation (i.e., how well students tell their story). Lucy, a senior, is completing an engineering capstone project to reduce contaminations from electronic waste. Lilli is taking on a challenging digital media project for a client and learning to use constructive feedback. JC appreciates time in the flight simulator (which he helped build over the summer). Blake will graduate in the spring with extensive work experience, 60 hours of college credit and will be on track to finish a finance degree in two years at KU. Instead of sports trophies, the results of PLTW biomedical research projects are proudly displayed at STA. 

North of Kansas City, Kearney High teachers are adding client projects to core and elective courses. Botony teacher Kaitlyn LaFrenz lined up garden projects with civic organizations and a church. Culinary teacher Kassidy Robertson helped students organize a catering event. Students in Angie Carmack’s Graphic Arts class served community clients with campaign collateral. Dustin McKinney turned choir into a client project with community deliverables while teaching quality, service, and entrepreneurship.  

Kearney Principal Dr. Andrew Gustafson showed off the professional broadcast studio where students produce news and sports programming. Several dozen Kearney students are engaged in an education internship where they teach an elementary class for an hour each afternoon. 

Shawnee Mission high schools (in southwest Kansas City and home of Kansas Superintendent of the Year Michelle Hubbard) are adding client projects in core and non-CTE courses. Tenth grade English at Shawnee Mission East High includes a project for a school district client; students problem-solve real issues in school operations and deliver a written report with solutions.   

Like Summit Tech, the Shawnee Mission Center for Academic Achievement opened in 2017. The next-gen career center hosts a world-class culinary program (above) and restaurant, the Broadmoor Bistro, which serves more than 150 guests per day (and is booked out through Valentine’s Day). It is supplied (in part) by a horticulture program that includes a greenhouse and garden (below). 

Above the restaurant are labs where seniors are doing capstone biomedical research with a molecular biologist, Dr Kenneth Lee (below). Research topics include microbes that degrade plastic, mycelial networks, micro-building blocks, and treatments for diabetes.  

Shawnee Mission elementary schools have added career exploration experiences. There is a middle school career fair and a high school internship fair. Secondary students use YouScience to identify strengths and interests and match them to possible futures.   

Bringing Real World Learning to Scale in Kansas City

The first cohort of 15 school systems received planning grants four years ago. It now includes 35 systems and 80 high schools in three Missouri counties and three Kansas counties. 

The goal is that all students will graduate with at least one valuable experience (called Market Value Assets) including internships, client projects, college credit (9 hours) and industry-recognized credentials. 

Many of the participating school systems have improved the number of students graduating with valuable experiences from a baseline of one-fifth to almost half. A few systems had more than 70% of graduates earn MVA, with many earning two or three. 

The Kansas state board has recommended that students should graduate with at least two valuable experiences (with a slightly broader definition). 

Principals from 49 of the regional high schools are participating in a fellowship program learning from each other how to add more real world learning. (The school visit observations in this blog resulted from accompanying principals as they visited other real world learning schools.)

Adding more real world learning experiences is boosting student engagement and job-ready skills, it’s developing learner agency and social capital, it’s connecting youth to possible futures and inviting them to experience success in what’s next. As more graduates leave school with valuable experiences, it’s likely to boost entrepreneurship and economic mobility and make Kansas City even more equitable and vibrant.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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