Schools Chief Taps Industry to Bring Rich Career Experiences to Students

By Sean Cavanagh February 24, 2015

Tom Trigg is the superintendent of Kansas’ Blue Valley school system—and an ambassador between two worlds.

The first world is his 22,000-student system, a high-performing district located in the suburbs southwest of Kansas City, Mo. The other is the surrounding business community, which Mr. Trigg and other district officials have courted and counted on to support the Center for Advanced Professional Studies, a program he helped found that introduces students to careers in the fields of law, bioscience, engineering, and many other areas—and is now being replicated in districts around the country.

The program allows students from the district’s five high schools to spend a portion of their days at the CAPS campus, taking classes that are designed and continually modified to reflect shifting industry standards.

Mr. Trigg, along with others in the district, helped shape the program and now promotes it among employers, as well as parents and others outside the district.

As they have built CAPS, Blue Valley officials have gone to companies with “a different pitch than I suppose what businesses are used to,” Mr. Trigg said. “We didn’t ask them for money. We said, ‘We’ve got this idea. Would you share with us your human capital? Would you be willing to provide your employees to help us put this program together?’”


  • Real-World Relevance: Many comprehensive high schools understand the new three R’s—including the need for rigor and the importance of relationships. The third “R,” relevance, is the most difficult to implement. Involve business and industry partners to provide relevance.
  • Expertise, Not Money: Instead of approaching partners to ask for money, ask them to share their expertise and human capital. The business community is eagerly waiting for school districts to approach them.
  • High Expectations: Don’t underestimate your students. You can expect them to consistently exceed the expectations of the district’s business partners.

The superintendent, 62, has a strong understanding of his community and its schools. He’s spent his entire K-12 career, spanning more than 40 years, working as a teacher, principal, and administrator in districts in Johnson County, Kan., which includes Blue Valley. He worked as an assistant and deputy superintendent in the school system before being promoted to the top spot in 2004.

For years, Blue Valley students have performed well on state tests and pursued college study at high rates. But more than a decade ago, district leaders became intent on finding new ways to motivate students and connect them with careers—even if Mr. Trigg and board members didn’t have a clear strategy in mind just yet.

District officials studied a variety of career and technical education programs, but had doubts about whether those approaches would do enough to connect students with professional careers and direct, workplace experiences. So they decided to build their own program from the ground up, beginning a process that would culminate in the opening of CAPS in 2009.

When board members interviewed Mr. Trigg for the superintendent’s job, they recognized his “vision for individualized learning,” which was essential to shaping the CAPS program, said Clinton O. Robinson, a former school board member who serves on an advisory panel for CAPS.

The district faced myriad challenges in getting the program off the ground, from shaping its design to determining where classes would be held, recalled Mr. Robinson, who is the associate vice president for state and local government affairs for the Black & Veatch Corp., a major engineering and construction business in Overland Park, Kan.

School board members relied heavily on Mr. Trigg to filter through ideas, make recommendations, and make adjustments when needed.

“His personality is a style of positive inquiry,” Mr. Robinson said. “I’ve never known him to skunk an idea or what you have to say. … We learned a lot early in the process about what we were doing right or wrong, and it helped Tom make adjustments.”

The program has been forced to navigate several obstacles. District officials have heard concerns that CAPS fosters a “competition for kids” between the program and separate high schools, where there are fears that funding and staffing will erode when students leave their home campuses for a portion of the week, Mr. Trigg acknowledges. The superintendent believes the high schools and CAPS can all prosper, but says the tension from competition is in some ways “not one you ever solve.”

Today, between 800 and 900 juniors and seniors, about 15 percent of those two combined classes, attend CAPS at any point during the school year, and students from all five of Blue Valley’s high schools can participate. They spend 2½ hours a day, five days a week, away from their home schools, either attending classes held in CAPS’ central building, a three-story, 70,000-square-foot structure located in Overland Park, or learning at different project sites. Students must apply to study at CAPS, but it is rare for students not to be accepted, Mr. Trigg said.

Industry in Mind

Students choose courses from industry strands such as business, human services, and medicine. Local industry leaders mentor students and work with CAPS faculty to review and revise the curriculum to keep up with shifting industry trends. More than 350 businesses and organizations involved in agribusiness, engineering, technology, and other industries prominent in the region, have contributed to the development of the school, through mentoring, curriculum, or other means.

The CAPS classes are in subjects that include molecular medicine and bioengineering, sports medicine, veterinary medicine, digital design and photography, global business, and filmmaking. Students receive elective or core academic credits, and in some cases, college credit.

In addition to helping students see the connections between their studies and future careers, the program allows them to try areas of study before they’re spending money following an academic track in college, Mr. Trigg said.

We wanted kids to feel like their junior and senior years of high school are going to benefit them, … not just something to get through. … We wanted something that inspired them.

Other districts around the country have taken notice. So far, programs in seven states have taken steps to replicate the Blue Valley model.

In 2011, CAPS received a gold Edison Award, a national honor for companies and organizations that produce innovations in various fields. That same year, Mr. Trigg was named Kansas superintendent of the year by the state’s association of school administrators. (Mr. Trigg deflects praise directed his way, saying if he deserves credit for anything, it’s hiring good people.)

The CAPS model hews to an approach critical to the success of many industry-themed high school programs: It involves businesses, not in superficial ways, but directly in shaping curriculum and keeping the program up to date, said James R. Stone III, the director of the Atlanta-based National Research Center for Career & Technical Education.

Leaders creating programs like CAPS need to be adept at understanding the needs of both K-12 and company officials—who often have “Venus and Mars” differences in worldviews, he added.

They need to “speak the language of education and the language of business and industry,” Mr. Stone said, and “make that translation.”

Bridging that gap ultimately pays off for students, who gain a stronger understanding of the meaning of school, Mr. Trigg said.

“We wanted kids to feel like their junior and senior years of high school are going to benefit them,” Mr. Trigg said, and “not just something to get through. … We wanted something that inspired them.”

Schools Chief Taps Industry to Bring Rich Career Experiences to Students