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Cedar Falls students get education in workforce

A group of Cedar Falls High School students will get some of their education in the workplace instead of the classroom when they start second semester next month.

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier ( ) reports the juniors and seniors will take on the title "associate," exchanging homework and tests for assigned projects in which they'll solve problems and meet deadlines.

After two years, Cedar Falls Community Schools is preparing to launch a new career program: the Center for Advanced Professional Studies.

The CAPS program is a partnership with local businesses to put students in a skilled career environment. They will study at a host business for about 2 1/2 hours with high school teachers and business mentors, earning high school and Hawkeye Community College credit.

"It really is an opportunity to provide career readiness skills by focusing on real-world experiences outside of the classroom," Dan Conrad, the district's director of secondary education, told the Board of Education last week. Students will complete projects for the companies.

"It's embedded opportunities for students working with professionals in professional careers," added Superintendent Andy Pattee.

District officials have been looking at engineering, computer science and information technology "strands" for the courses — emphasizing career fields for which students would earn at least two- or four-year college degrees.

"We really worked with our (Greater Cedar Valley Alliance &) Chamber about what strands would be most beneficial," explained Pattee, as well as identifying potential host businesses. They also met with Hawkeye Community College and University of Northern Iowa officials in determining college credit requirements.

The host business for the engineering strand will be Viking Pump. Administrators are still working on the other two strands.

"We have not yet secured a host site for the computer science strand," said Conrad. "We are working with a couple of local businesses to see if that can be determined for us to start in the second semester."

He hopes to finalize plans within the next week. The new semester starts Jan. 17.

Less progress has been made in the third area. "We've had a couple road bumps with the information technology strand, so that probably won't get started until next fall," he added.

Ideally, 10 to 15 students will be in each strand, but the classes will have a lower enrollment next semester.

"We're going to start small," said Conrad. "Right now, for spring semester, we've got 18 students signed up."

There will be no prerequisites for students. "If you have a passion and a real interest in this area, you're welcome to enroll," said Conrad. "It's so much different than a traditional classroom that sometimes those who surprise you the most are those who don't do well in a traditional classroom."

Ethan Weichmann will be the district's instructor for both the engineering and computer science strands during second semester. He is a math teacher at the high school.

"My job as an instructor is to work with them on what does it mean to be a professional," he said, such as developing a resume and a portfolio. "The idea is to make it as real world as we can."

Direct instruction will be as limited as possible, he noted. Instead, students will be guided with mentors to complete a project.

"They'll be working on various projects," said Weichmann. "We want to be able to provide a variety of experiences for them, and a variety of options."

Nate Clayberg, who operates a business solutions firm, is "helping to find projects these students can get involved in," he said. The district has contracted with him as business liaison for CAPS. He will find business support.

"Sometimes it's hard to connect education and business, and that's where my role comes in," said Clayberg.

Principal Jason Wedgbury noted an important aspect will be learning a set of skills in any professional setting — problem solving, interacting with clients, doing quality work, meeting deadlines and communicating effectively. Students will also be learning specific career skills.

"I think it's very much an exposure and an exploration," he said. "It looks very different than our current school experience."

The CAPS concept was created by the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park, Kan., in 2008 and now enrolls hundreds of students. Related programs have spread to more than 20 other locations in nine states.

Cedar Falls High School started looking at CAPS two years ago. District officials made visits to Blue Valley and career programs in Waukee and Cedar Rapids. In February last year, they introduced the idea to local businesses to gauge interest before implementation.

Curriculum has been developed in collaboration with Hawkeye and the business partners. In addition, the CAPS Network helped guide program setup.

A startup grant of $15,300 was received from the Cedar Falls Schools Foundation through the Arvid and Elsa Waschek Family Fund at the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa. Conrad said the family then gave an additional $10,000.

"Although we will continue to explore other funding opportunities (grants, etc.) to support the program, the district is committed to sustaining CAPS," said Conrad. "Therefore, we do intend to fund it with general fund dollars as we grow and expand."

A full-time substitute will replace Weichmann at the high school for second semester. Anticipated costs of operating CAPS are still being determined.

"Right now, it would be difficult to put an exact dollar amount on the program, since we still are not sure if we will be offering one or two strands this year," said Conrad. "We estimate the program will cost in the neighborhood of $30,000 for the second semester. This includes the teacher salary and benefits, business liaison contract and any additional costs for technology or equipment, travel, training."

Enrollment growth and additional strands in subsequent years could lead to a full-time teacher in each strand at an average cost of $60,000 plus other expenses. Strands that may be considered in the future include teacher education and medical careers.

District officials are also looking to neighboring Waterloo Community Schools' new high school career center, located in a remodeled area of Central Middle School. Two career and technical education pathways were launched this fall, with plans to add three more next year.

"We have had conversations with Waterloo about opportunities for partnership down the road," said Conrad. This would allow for expanded career offerings in the two districts without duplicating programs.

Clayberg said involvement with CAPS appeals to some business because it may help get some students consider careers they wouldn't have contemplated. "They're in need of filling that workforce pipeline, and this is a good way," he suggested.

Officials said students could help businesses with a project they lack staff for. "I want that business to feel the value of what our students are offering them," said Wedgbury.

But he emphasized students will benefit most from CAPS. He first saw it "as a niche for some" students, but his appreciation for CAPS has grown.

"The more I get involved, I think almost all of our students could benefit from this program," he said.

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