If Google and Ikea started a school, what would it look like? Andy Robinson, director of the Four Rivers Career Center, imagines it would look something like Four Rivers’ new CAPS program.
CAPS, which stands for Center for Advanced Professional Studies, is an innovative high school program where students get hands-on lessons in real-world business situations.
Rather than just reading about entrepreneurs, they get the chance to become entrepreneurs themselves, creating their own products and starting up their own businesses. Instead of studying about things like marketing and finance from a textbook, they get to pitch their own ideas to business leaders around Washington.
The classroom space alone is enough to tell you that this isn’t a traditional approach to learning. There are no rows of desks here. No white boards.
“Our theme for the general area is Confluence, which is a coming together of ideas,” said Emily Wilson, a CAPS student, in an “elevator pitch” format, which allows 30 seconds to get a point across. “We get the opportunity to meet a lot of different people, do a lot of different projects in a lot of different ways.”
The room has an open layout with different types of meeting spaces: a set of half-circle benches with tables and an oversized computer monitor that instructor Cathy Jinkerson calls “the circus area,” a creator space that includes equipment like a 3-D printer, a loft space with Mac computers, a conference room where students can meet with business leaders from the community, and various seating choices, from bar-height round tables and chairs to restaurant-style booths to the “talk show” area where there is an upholstered loveseat and chairs.
In the center of the room is the “fish bowl,” a meeting room with glass walls where students can pitch their ideas to business leaders.
Even Jinkerson’s “desk” is not so much a desk as a kiosk, where students can meet with her for guidance and input. It was made from old textbooks stacked on top of each other.
“One thing businesses told us they wanted to see in school was a more collaborative work environment, so this space was designed to provide that,” said Robinson, recalling how on the very first day the space was opened back in April, he was meeting with Superintendent Dr. Lori Van Leer, Washington Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Giesike and others, and that is exactly what was happening around them.
“We had IT (information technology) kids in here; machine/tool kids in here; we had graphics kids in here; and they were working on a project together. It’s the capstone project.
“That’s what we want these kids to learn,” he said. “You’ve got a project, just like in the newspaper world, you’ve got writers, editors, publishers, the business front end . . . You can’t do it all by yourself. That is the element we are trying to get across to these kids. You have to surround yourself with people who have the same vision. Then you become successful.”
‘Freedom to Do What They Want’
The CAPS program at Four Rivers began second semester last school year with just 12 students enrolled. The idea, however, was four years in the making and came out of a focus group that met on how better to engage students in learning, what is it that the community needs and what do the best schools do?
“From an employer standpoint, we wanted to give kids an opportunity to apply what they’re learning in school to real life and to up the standards,” said Robinson, “give them the freedom to do what they want to do.”
He likened the class to Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt stores, where people are in charge of how how much and which types of toppings to add so that no two orders are ever exactly alike.
“That’s one thing that is a little different about CAPS,” said Jinkerson. “Every student has an individualized program, whether they are doing a group project or on their own, they get to choose the projects that they’ll continue throughout the school year.”
The CAPS program is focused on global business and entrepreneurship. Students spend the first semester seeing and defining what that means and the second semester diving deep into their own projects.
“Some will be looking for internships or work opportunities, some will be busy trying to develop their own business or product,” said Jinkerson.
The class is limited to juniors and seniors, and requires an interview to be accepted. Students from all schools in the Four Rivers Career Center consortium are eligible to enroll. This year there are 42 students between two classes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Students are not required to have taken any previous business classes, but having a strong business foundation does help, said Robinson. So does having strong communication and verbal skills.
Because of the student-led approach to the program, students might come in thinking it will be an easy grade with no homework or excited because there’s no textbook, said Robinson, “but what they discover is that they will actually work harder for this class than they do for any other class they’ve ever had because it’s all based on what they want to do.
“If they want to be a failed business, then you’re not going to work very hard. But if you want to be a successful business, you’re going to have to put forth the effort, which they do,” he said.
CAPS in Action
At the beginning of the school year, the CAPS students were given a chance to come up with ideas for Downtown Washington Inc. on how to increase foot traffic for businesses downtown. They began by taking a tour to learn about the history and seeing areas of potential.
Working in groups, the students came up with lots of good ideas, said Bridgette Kelch, executive director of Downtown Washington Inc.
“We definitely get a different point of view. It’s interesting to see how their minds work and put things together,” said Kelch. “They were all good (pitches), and some I thought could almost immediately be implemented.”
One of those ideas was a bike-sharing rental business, which Kelch said Downtown Washington Inc. has actually talked about wanting to have.
“We’ve been waiting for an entrepreneur to do privately, but it might not happen, so I’m encouraging (the students) not to stop,” said Kelch. “One big thing I talk to them about is that this is real. We are real people doing this every day. So you might think of this as an assignment, but I’m going to treat you as if you are a regular adult walking into my office with this idea.
“And if you stick with it and persevere, your project could become a reality.”
The bike-sharing rentals could be a business one of them starts or it could even be a class business that gets handed off each year to a new set of students to manage and operate, Kelch suggested.
The students pitched their ideas to members of Downtown Washington Inc. at the Confluence inside Four Rivers. They met inside the “fish bowl” room standing up in front of bankers, real estate agents, retail store owners, lodging owners and others.
It was challenging, but also exhilarating, said Wilson, noting another idea was a pop-up shop to resell formalwear.
“You had people tell you, ‘Wow, this is really cool! We could actually do it.’ Or, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t the most feasible thing,’ ” she said.
One idea that many of the Downtown Washington merchants liked was creating a corncob pipe monument to recognize Washington’s status as the “corncob pipe capital of the world.”
“We want put it on the riverfront, to the right of the pavilion,” said Zach Harms, who was one of the students in the group to pitch the idea. “We talked to the Missouri Meerschaum Company, and they were on board with it.”
Kelch said that group did a great job with their pitch.
“I was impressed because they learned the history and really put a lot of thought and effort in it,” she said.
12 Hours of College Credit
Jared Lopez, a senior in the CAPS program, said he enrolled in the class because he is planning for a career in business. Not only is he enjoying the class, he feels like he’s learning much more.
“I feel like I’m getting real world experience out of this class, as opposed to being in a normal book-work class where I’m not actually understanding it. I’m just memorizing something,” said Lopez.
Another student who was in the program last semester when it began agreed.
“You get your feet wet and get a little bit of experience in each part of it, see all the parts of it,” she said.
Last year a couple of CAPS students started a business, Deja Brew, making coffee sleeves. It was US Bank’s Small Business of the Month last January.
They also took part in a Christmas market at Blumenhof Winery. The students sold their products — coffee sleeves, soaps, organic dog treats and repurposed wood signs — alongside other professional vendors.
Just setting up their booth next to the professional vendors was educational, one student said.
“We just had a table, but they had tents, things hanging and hanging with a purpose,” she said.
Already this school year, the CAPS students have opened a Four Rivers school store, a place where students can purchase food items like pizza rolls and cinnamon rolls to eat during breaks.
Right now, students are gearing up for an open house being held next week, and after that they will begin coming up with their own concepts, developing their own business or maybe a prototype for a product that they want to begin to develop, said Jinkerson.
They’ve worked on their career portfolio, their resumes, their LinkedIn profiles, and have been practicing interview questions.
“Friday we were all in the conference room and there’s a hot seat,” said Wilson, noting students took turns answering interview questions off the top of their head right there in front of everyone. “Then we all gave feedback on what we could have done better, what we did right . . .
“It’s definitely cool though, because when you go to an interview for a job that’s maybe not fast food, you’re more prepared for what they’re really going to ask you other than, ‘What do you do outside of school?’ or ‘What hours can you work?’ ” said Wilson.
It’s great preparation for scholarship interviews too, she said.
In addition to gaining experience and a fuller business understanding, CAPS students also receive college credit — 12 hours for fundamentals of management, public speaking, business communication and introduction to business. said Jinkerson.
Looking for Businesses to Get Involved
CAPS is looking for area businesses that want to get involved with the program. The Washington Area Chamber of Commerce, which is serving as a liaison between businesses and the program, welcomed two interns from CAPS last spring and then stayed on through the summer to help with planning and preparing for the Washington Town and Country Fair.
The students were interested in marketing and graphic design, said Giesike, so she took them to visit a couple of Chamber businesses to see that work in action.
“We tried to make that connection for them,” said Giesike, noting they toured the Bank of Washington, The Missourian and Ziglin Signs.
The professionals they met not only talked to them about the work, they offered job advice too.
“One person’s advice to the girls was, ‘Don’t box yourself into one type of graphic design. Maybe have marketing as a minor,’ ” said Giesike.
“That’s what we feel is the biggest advantage of CAPS for the Chamber, getting our businesses connected with those students, because they are our future leaders,” she added. “So often we see these kids go off to college, and then they don’t come back to Washington. We have so much here to offer our children . . . ”
By connecting the CAPS students and local businesses, the program is showing students what kind of work is available here, in the hope that they will return to this area after college, and it’s giving businesses a peek at their potential workforce — and giving them a shot at helping to shape those future workers.
“The businesses could even make suggestions of pieces to add to the CAPS program because it will help their business and probably others,” said Giesike.
Being able to keep those students in this area or getting them to return here after college is a goal.
“We hear so much about our area having an aging population, so what are some of the things we can do to get new people or get some of our young people to come back after college, and doing things like this . . .. only makes it better,” said Giesike.
CAPS Open House Is October 26
CAPS will hold an open house for business professionals Thursday, Oct. 26, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s a way to introduce the program to businesses that are unfamiliar with it and also to let them see and hear from the students themselves.
CAPS is sending out invitations to Chamber businesses, and students were making “cold calls” to some to extend an invitation.
At the open house, students will be giving presentations, and a couple may even be ready to launch their businesses and present their concepts, said Jinkerson. There will be an area where business leaders can view the students’ resumes and LinkedIn profiles, perhaps to consider them for second-semester job internships or job shadowing, and another where they can write life lessons and advice to the students.
As a door prize, one business will win the chance to have CAPS students help them with the No. 7 item on their to-do list.
“No. 7 is that item on the list that you never seem to have time to get to, because No. 1 through 6 always take priority, and really No. 1 through 3,” said Robinson. “So give them your No. 7, and let them attack it.”
The open house will include a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Chamber, since the program is partnering with the Chamber.
“We are doing this in conjunction with the Chamber. We look at this facility as a value-added product for Chamber members, something they can get involved with and tap into,” said Robinson.