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Learning Outside the Classroom in Springfield, Missouri

By Will Burns

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Education and workforce development is a major priority for businesses in Springfield, Missouri. In a tight labor market, businesses are having trouble finding employees with the right skills. To address this growing concern, the board of directors at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce elevated workforce development to one of the organization’s four strategic areas of focus.

“The reason that we have become so engaged in the workforce space is that our members are having a terrible time finding the talent they need,” said Lindsay Haymes, the chamber’s vice president of workforce development and executive director of the GO CAPS program. “We were hearing that students aren’t ready. They don’t have the right skills and they don’t come prepared for the workplace.”

The Springfield Area Chamber Education and Workforce Committee provided a way for business leaders to come together with regional school system superintendents and university partners to discuss workforce issues. The school districts believed they had to do something differently to get students more engaged in their school work. In addition, the chamber knew through its economic development work that high growth industries in the region were not seeing enough students enter in-demand career fields.

Searching for a solution, they reviewed an innovative program that had been launched by the Blue Valley, Kan. school district and replicated in other districts across the country. The Blue Valley Center for Professional Studies is a program that takes high school students out of the classroom to immerse them in professional culture, solving real work problems.

GO CAPS is Born
The Greater Ozarks Center for Advanced Professional Studies (GO CAPS) was launched in February 2015. Eleven area school districts participated in the pilot program, which was offered to 120 students during the 2015-16 school year. Springfield Public Schools, the region’s largest school district, is the program’s fiscal agent, and the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce was contracted to manage GO CAPS.

“From day one we were at the table, encouraging businesses to look at this model and encouraging the school districts to move forward,” Haymes said. “From there a natural partnership developed and we were presented with the opportunity to actually manage the program.”

GO CAPS is a year-long program that provides high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to explore high demand careers in their community. The program combines classroom learning with immersive, hands-on experiences to help students discover their passions, develop professional skills and learn from industry leaders.

The Chamber serves as the link between the business and education communities. The program focused on three industry sectors when it launched: engineering and manufacturing, medicine and healthcare and entrepreneurship. The focus areas were based on growth and target industry areas in the region.

Advisory teams were organized to lead each of the three strands. Each advisory team is led by a certified teacher and the curriculum for the program is driven by industry leaders. Last year, representatives from 33 companies participated on advisory teams. Haymes said that it is important for teachers to lead the teams because it provides them with the opportunity to build relationships with business volunteers.

Participating students leave their high schools to learn and work at a business partner site for two-and-a-half hours each weekday during the school year. They earn high school credit, and in some cases college credit through Missouri State University and Ozarks Technical Community College.

Classrooms are embedded in businesses, including a local manufacturer, health care systems and a business incubator. Participating businesses provide students with real-world projects to complete. In addition, many employers take students through their employee onboarding process or professional development program. Other student activities include guest lectures, facility tours and job shadowing programs.

GO CAPS activities provide students with practical applications that provide industry relevance to their classroom lessons. A teacher can tell their students that algebra is an important subject to learn, Haymes said, but that message is more likely to resonate when students visit a manufacturing facility to see how lessons from their algebra class are applied in the real world.

The work-based setting itself also has a positive impact on participants. The experience provides students with valuable employability skills like critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and presentation skills. Participants also dress professionally during the program and learn professional phone and meeting etiquette.

“GO CAPS is all about providing a relevant, engaging learning experience for students and partnering with businesses around major areas where the community has needs,” explained Dr. John Jungmann, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools. “Our students learn about the needs of our community, what the future of the workforce is and how to align their talents.”

Lessons Learned & Next Steps
“We learned so much from our first year,” Haymes said. “This year, we’ve been able to improve the student experience and better prepare our business partners.”

During its first year, 120 students from 11 school districts participated. Entering the 2016-17 school year, GO CAPS expanded to serve 230 students from 13 districts. In addition, a fourth track was added to focus on careers in the technology solutions field.

Business engagement is crucial to the program’s success. During the 2015-16 school year, more than 170 businesses participated at some level. Opportunities for area business to be part of the GO CAPS program include:

  • Providing guest speakers and instruction to students
  • Involving students in a real-world project
  • Offering job shadowing, internships or mentoring
  • Providing professional input on curriculum
  • Hosting students for a tour of their facility
  • Providing equipment or supplies for use in the program
  • Sharing their company’s professional development program with students
  • Supporting Go CAPS with a monetary investment

Haymes said that area companies are eager to get involved, but as the program grows, continued outreach is needed to ensure the quality of student experiences. The chamber team reaches out to new participants to be sure they understand the goals of the program and how their company’s participation can have a meaningful impact on students. Staff also helps new business partners find the right connections for managing insurance requirements and liability issues related to their participation.

While business engagement is crucial, it is hard to overemphasize the important role that teachers play. Building relationships between the teachers and the business community helps keep the content fresh and the program flexible enough to adjust with new industry trends. To enable a broader impact, the chamber expanded its teacher externship program. Prior to the first year of GO CAPS, 31 teachers participated in externships at 23 businesses. Last summer, 79 teachers were hosted by 41 businesses.

“We have been really proud of the work to launch a teacher externship program during the summer,” Haymes said. “Teachers spend four days with businesses learning more about growing local industries, the skills our businesses need, and how they can embed business problems into classroom instruction so that students see the real-world application.”

Learn more about the GO CAPS program online at www.springfieldchamber.com/gocaps.

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