FENTON — The students wear scrubs and sit around a conference room at SSM Health St. Clare Hospital. They discuss how to diagnose and treat Bell’s palsy and how to distinguish its paralyzing symptoms from a stroke. Then they go into the patient rooms, following doctors and nurses as they treat patients on the neurology unit.
But the students aren’t in medical school; they’re seniors at St. Louis-area high schools who spend half their class time in a hospital or other workplace.
“I’m learning about stuff that I’m actually interested in,” said Kayla Watkins, 17, a senior at Kirkwood High School who wants to be a biochemical geneticist.
Students in the Centers for Advanced Professional Studies, or CAPS, program earn high school and college credit while gaining real-world experience in business, manufacturing, health care, technology and other professional fields.
The St. Louis CAPS program, which includes nine high schools in St. Louis and Jefferson counties, was started in 2015 with help from Affton School District Superintendent Travis Bracht. Other districts including Parkway, Ladue, Francis Howell and Wentzville also have CAPS programs.
On the job sites, students “have to act professionally 100%. There is no classroom. We think that raises that level of expectation,” Bracht said. All of the graduates of the program have gone on to two- or four-year colleges, he said.
In addition to the job training, students learn professional skills like interviewing, résumé building and networking. They take professional head shots and create LinkedIn profiles.
Christine Mehigh taught anatomy and physiology at Oakville High School and now teaches full-time in the CAPS program at St. Clare. It’s the best teaching job she’s had, because “everyone wants to be here very badly,” she said.
Shaelyn Frauenhoffer attends class at Oakville High from 7:15 to 10:30 a.m. and then goes to the hospital from noon to 2:30 p.m. each day. Shaelyn said she joined the program because she has taken most of the Advanced Placement courses at her school and has always had an interest in medicine. She plans to specialize in infectious diseases or immunology.
“This will put me ahead in the long run with internships and medical school,” Shaelyn said.
Marizela Dulic, a registered nurse at St. Clare, said she wishes the program had been available when she was in high school. Some of her nursing school classmates decided against the career only after starting their first jobs, she said.
“Even in nursing school, they teach you the perfect scenario,” Dulic said. With the CAPS program, “they have the opportunity to see the everyday real world, if this is something they really want to embark on or not.”
Dulic made her patient rounds on Thursday with Ethan Lenhardt, 17, a senior at Kirkwood High who wants to be a gastroenterologist.
About 20% of the seniors at Mehlville and Oakville high schools are in personalized learning programs like CAPS where they can design their studies to fit their career goals, according to Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines.
The district’s focus on personalized learning attracted superintendents from around the country to visit Mehlville schools in September.
William Wilson of the Brush School District in Colorado said schools are moving away from the traditional model of a teacher standing in front of rows of desks, because “kids just don’t learn like that anymore.”
Other districts have launched career training programs that can give a head start to students heading to college, and a hands-on experience for those going straight into the workforce.
• Boeing offered aircraft manufacturing jobs in June to six graduating seniors from North Technical, South Technical, Pattonville and Fort Zumwalt West high schools who completed a four-month job training program through St. Louis Community College.
• This year, high school students in the Fort Zumwalt district can receive high school and college credit for paid apprenticeships with Merric Millwork and Seating of O’Fallon, Mo.
• The Ferguson-Florissant School District opened Innovation School at Cool Valley this fall for 60 students in ninth grade, with plans to add a grade to the high school each year. The students spend two days each week working in an internship in the community.
• Seniors at Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience in St. Louis Public Schools complete internships at job sites through partners like BJC HealthCare and the St. Louis Zoo.
The job training programs allow students to “test-drive a career,” said John DeWalle, director of college and career readiness at Mehlville School District. “To network at 17, 18 years old from professionals is something we can’t replicate in the classroom.”