Ridgefield School District program hands the reins to students

Center for Advanced Professional Studies gives juniors, seniors chance to gain real-world skills

In 2020, remote learning led many educators to reimagine what form a classroom might take.

One alternative learning program in Clark County is continuing to do that, offering students an entirely different approach to their education.

The Center for Advanced Professional Studies program in the Ridgefield School District allows Ridgefield High School students to work two periods a day on semester-long group and individual projects that connect their personal interests to community businesses and organizations.

Participating students design prototypes, work on brand strategy and engage in hands-on partnerships in professional settings, rather than having a full schedule of traditional classes.

On Wednesday, CAPS students — mostly juniors and seniors — showcased their work this year to a handful of younger students potentially interested in enrolling in the program in the future.

“It’s a nice change of pace,” said Reagan Sites, a junior in the program’s digital design cohort. He and his fellow students have been designing and developing a coloring book about indigenous frog species for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “You have a lot more responsibility and freedom at the same time.”

The program is housed at Ridgefield’s Wisdom Ridge Academy, a building that feels less like a school and more like a college-office hybrid. A few traditionally designed classrooms spill into meeting rooms and lab spaces — all nestled in an open-air warehouse environment. Students move about freely, working with one another on various projects.

The students themselves are in charge of the space and how it’s used, while a handful of teachers offer guidance in their academic specialties.

Wednesday’s presentation began with brief thoughts from the four teachers who oversee the program. Each teacher provides guidance in one of four areas of focus: engineering, digital design, business and marketing, and medical interventions. As opposed to magnet programs that home in on one academic discipline, CAPS is geared toward all students.

The teachers repeat the mantra that the program is designed to allow students to act like and be treated as professionals.

“You’re going to get hands-on, real work,” said Jared Hundley, the CAPS program director.

Visiting students on Wednesday learned from groups of current students in each area of focus, hearing a brief presentation on current projects and then asking questions about what the CAPS experience is like.

Students work on client projects and passion projects, developing professional skills like public speaking and writing along the way.

Client projects feature opportunities to work with companies within the students’ fields of interest. Students are responsible for setting up meetings with local business leaders and figuring out how to best aid them in a specific way, whether that be designing a prototype or logo or aiding them in a marketing strategy.

The program’s engineering team worked with Ridgefield-based mini dessert company Killa Bites to design a new cake-cutting prototype.

Passion projects operate on the side, where students can work independently to create a product or answer a critical question. For example, one student said he’s using 3D modeling software Blender to create a video game; another student is designing a power saw.

Steven Rinard, the engineering group’s teacher, has worked in CAPS since its inception four years ago. The inspiration for the program, he said, came from a visit to a school in the Midwest.

“Seeing students working on real projects instead of just made-up stuff you sometimes see in the classroom made me rethink what being a teacher could be,” he said. “We’re trying to grow it still. Getting students to be able to fit it into their schedules is one of the bigger hurdles.”

Caden Edwards, a senior, said he pursued CAPS because he wanted to do more work in 3D modeling and had heard about the program from other students.

“It’s definitely something you look forward to,” he said. “There’s pressure to get stuff done, but it’s a different pressure.”

Edwards’ fellow engineering students agreed.

“One of the reasons some kids don’t like school is they just wonder, like, ‘How am I ever going to use this?’ ” senior Cardelia Ashley added.

Students are also able to attend several field trips throughout the semester, to places including Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center for students enrolled in the medical interventions cohort.

Hundley said that even though the program is in its early years, he’s working to establish an alumni group to help connect CAPS graduates with current students to reflect on how the program influenced their lives after high school. In the meantime, he hopes outreach events like Wednesday’s tour and presentation can help get the word out.

“Students really take ownership of their work here,” he said, echoing Edwards’ concept of “a different pressure.”

“There’s incentive for them. They’re providing a service,” Hundley said. “The students are just motivated in a totally different way.”

The original article from the Columbian can be found here.