RIDGEFIELD — Shop classes aren’t as prevalent at high school today, but a group of Ridgefield High School students have spent time recently working on a car.
You won’t see the car cruising Pioneer Street anytime soon, though. Instead, it’ll most likely be seen on the playground at Union Ridge Elementary School. The high schoolers are part of Ridgefield’s new Center for Advanced Professional Studies program, in which students work with outside companies on projects.
One group of students teamed up to transform a toy car into an adaptive car that will allow students with special needs to drive around a playground during recess and socialize with their classmates. They used grant funds to purchased a toy remote car large enough for a child. They removed the seat and replaced it with a car seat, which they secured to the car to keep the student driving safe.
“We found two students in the district where something like this would really help them go out during recess to be around other students,” said Malachi Lee, a senior at Ridgefield High School who is working on the car.
On a visit before winter break, the students were working on continuing to lock the car seat into place using seat belts.
The CAPS program started in the spring, and there were 36 juniors and seniors in it when the program returned this fall. The program lasts two periods of the day, and is based in portable classrooms at Union Ridge. Students travel from the high school to Union Ridge and dress in more work-appropriate clothes than the typical high school student might wear to class.
There are three strands available to follow: engineering, health sciences and business, marketing and entrepreneurship. The adaptive car is a rare project where students from multiple strands are teaming up.
“Times have changed,” Superintendent Nathan McCann said. “It’s easy for all of us to look back on our childhood a little more rose-colored than might merit. A lot of people think the younger generation is more selfish because they seemed more focused on themselves, but I don’t believe it. Kids today are every bit committed to their communities and doing good work. They want to make an impact.”
That was a big reason why McCann was first interested in bringing the CAPS program to Ridgefield after seeing it used at a district in Utah. CAPS is a national program that looks to bring students into the professional world while teaching them skills to succeed outside the classroom.
“People think students just graduate and they’re work ready,” said Kara Breuer, health sciences instructor in the Ridgefield program. “They’re not.”
Each strand has an instructor from the high school. In addition to Breuer, Andrea Reinertson teaches the business, marketing entrepreneurship strand and Steve Rinard leads the engineering cohort. All three also teach at Ridgefield High School. Tiffany Gould, the district’s director of career and technical education and federal programs, leads the CAPS program. Ridgefield High School Principal Christen Palmer also helps oversee the program.
The three teachers helped students connect to local businesses or organizations looking for help on projects. It’s then up to the students to collaborate with those organizations, pitch ideas, set up times to talk and present their projects. Reinertson said the program is the “ultimate connection between education, community and business.” The instructors said one important thing they’ve had to teach students is that failure doesn’t mean a project ends — just that they have to come up with another idea and try again.
“Not everything will be a success,” Gould said. “We want this to be a learning environment for the students to show them how to approach things in the business world.”
That’s not the only major hurdle students have faced, according to the instructors.
“It’s an ongoing process to teach time management,” Rinard said. “Students know how to cram for a test or assignment. You can try to do one of these projects in one night, but you’re going to have a bad project and fail. So we have to go over time management a lot. Many of their mentors see time management as the greatest asset they can have.”
Students have worked on projects for Elkhart Plastics in Ridgefield, Oregon Health & Science University and a company that creates lasers. They also have guest speakers and do job shadows.
“We had one student who thought she wanted to be a neonatal nurse, and after a one-hour interview with a mentor, she changed her mind,” Breuer said. “Students don’t always get to see professionals out working this early. A job shadow can be really impactful. Most kids don’t get an opportunity like that.”
Students in the program also get to work on projects in their community. A group of seniors in the program — Hunter Abrams, Nathan Neil, Aida Sinks, Brooke Weese and Ethan Barnette — were tasked with designing inclusive playgrounds for elementary schools, which will then be part of the district’s February 2020 bond campaign.
“I enjoy science classes a lot,” Weese said. “So that led me in this direction.”
The instructors and McCann say they hope to add more strands as the program continues to grow. There are no prerequisites for joining the program, although there is an application process. The instructors said they don’t want to go above 20 students in each strand right now. Gould said one idea for the future is to add a digital design strand. Construction is also a possibility, she added. McCann said he’s interested in looking at a drone technology focus and a mental health one.
Regardless of what future strands the program adds, McCann said he’s confident bringing CAPS to Ridgefield is something that will greatly benefit students.
“We want students to leave here and feel like they have a leg up,” he said. “They’ll have experience presenting their ideas, pitching to businesses and meeting deadlines.”