Blue Valley CAPS: A Conversation with Corey Mohn and Ashlyn Kennedy
Q&A 26 November 2019
By Corey Mohn, Blue Valley CAPS, and Ashlyn Kennedy, Blue Valley CAPS
I found my passion—entrepreneurship. I didn’t know this was an interest of mine, but I love the abstract thinking involved in coming up with new ideas.
Q: What path led you to working at Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), and what intrigued you about the program?
Corey: For me, it was a happy accident. I’m not an educator by trade; rather, I come from a business and entrepreneurship background. So, this is my first career in education. The leaders at Blue Valley CAPS were looking for someone to come in and continue the good work of the program—prioritizing the work outside the four walls of the school and the boundaries of the school district. They wanted the program to be more focused on how we could connect to business partners, entrepreneurs, and interesting people doing interesting things in the community.
There are highly qualified educators across all public school systems. They know the rules of the road—how to support children, students, and young professionals find success along the conventional pathways. But, it’s been hard up until this point to find people who come from different industries and professional experiences who want education to be their next career move. It didn’t take long for me to catch the bug and say, “Oh my god, this is a really great opportunity.” I know there are others who would see the value of similar opportunities; we just need to find them.
It also wasn’t until I saw what CAPS was providing young people that I realized my own educational experience wasn’t that great. At the time, I thought it was a great experience. But, CAPS has shown me all the ways I could’ve maximized my experiences as a young person had I known what was really important—like pursuing my interests and discovering my passion—and what was less important—like GPA’s and test scores.
This has happened over and over since I’ve been at CAPS, but one story I like to share is about a student who wanted to talk to me about why he thought he deserved a better grade in a particular class. He had visited with his teacher and didn’t like the answer, so he came to talk to me about it. I asked the student, “Do you think your grades in high school will make a difference at the end of the day with what you really want to do in the future?”
You could have the nicest building in the world with the greatest equipment, but if the instructors are teaching the way we’ve always been taught, it’s not going to change the learning experience.
To me, the answer to this question is where the disconnect lies. When I was in school, I thought if I got a B rather than an A on a particular paper or project, that somehow it was going to derail me from what I wanted to do with my life. When in reality, like I told this student and other students, there have only been two or three times in my life that I’ve been asked about my college GPA, and I’ve never been asked for my high school GPA. It just isn’t that relevant.
What I want my students to see is that it’s far more important to connect to what’s really important and what we care about, being willing to be curious and explore things that are challenging to us, and knowing that through these challenges, we are going to grow and get better every day. It’s how I’ve learned and grown over the years, and I just love it when students get excited about a project and see a future in something that’s exciting to them—and stop worrying about grades.
Q: Ashlyn, how were you introduced to CAPS and what intrigued you about the program?
Ashlyn: I heard about CAPS in middle school when they came in and gave a presentation. I became very interested in the program because it seemed like a new opportunity to showcase my skills in a different way. I’m a fine student in core classes but nothing exceptional or mind-blowing. I saw CAPS as an opportunity to showcase my entrepreneurial skills, my ability to innovate, how I work in professional environments, and who I am as a leader.
It’s been really exciting because now I’m able to showcase these skills for college, whereas if CAPS wasn’t around, I’d have to focus solely on my transcripts from the core classes I don’t stand out in.
Q: What was something you learned about yourself that you hadn’t known before getting involved with CAPS?
Ashlyn: I always knew that I was into business, leadership, and management. So, when I first enrolled into CAPS, I signed up for a business class but because it was already full, I was placed into an innovation course. That ended up being great for me because I found my passion—entrepreneurship. I didn’t know this was an interest of mine, but I love the abstract thinking involved in coming up with new ideas.
Q: Corey, what’s the culture like at CAPS, and what difference does it make for you personally?
Corey: We have a culture at CAPS that expects everyone—young people and adults alike—to push themselves outside their comfort zones. You can almost feel it when you’re around students like Ashlyn and her peers. They are freed up to not be afraid of doing something just because it doesn’t match some preconceived notion of success. With this freedom, they start spreading their wings.
It’s okay to dream (and “do”) big here. We can experiment with something a bit smaller than the big dream, but we all have a moral imperative to continue moving the experimentation forward. We’re in a K-12 system that hasn’t changed very much in the last century, and that’s where the moral imperative part comes in. When we see what any of our 600 students are capable of, why wouldn’t we try to make this possible for every student across the country?
Q: As a young learner who spends half her day in conventional classes and half her day at CAPS, how has your relationship with conventional schooling shifted?
Ashlyn: I haven’t found much cohesion between the two. I definitely like CAPS much much more. It’s a hands-on experience. It’s not learning from a textbook like the way I do at my conventional school. I actually go out, experience, and do things myself. That type of learning works much better for me.
One thing that has shifted for me is that I’ve definitely excelled these last two years in my conventional classes. I never thought about how that may have to do with my experience at CAPS. The abstract thinking I engage with through my opportunities at CAPS has given me a different perspective on assessing things like literary works in English. I’m able to ask more critical questions about the material.
Q: What about asking questions interests you?
Ashlyn: I like to know what I’m learning, rather than being told “this is just how it’s done.” I like to know exactly why it’s done that way because that’s how I understand and learn things.
Q: Corey, how does asking powerful questions play into the CAPS model?
Corey: It’s really important. Over the course of a year, we watch students go through this evolution where they begin by tiptoeing around because they’re unfamiliar with making independent choices about what they want to learn, who they want to partner with on a project, or what product they want to create and put out into the world. Initially, there’s a culture shock and even a bit of paralysis as to “how do I navigate this culture because I’m unsure what’s okay and what’s not okay?”
Once students start getting used to the new culture, they see how asking questions is a huge part of what happens here. The only way for anyone to find their purpose is to ask questions. Once you decide it’s okay to ask questions without the fear of looking dumb or being seen as unqualified, it changes everything. This allows young people to move from being conformist learners to confident learners and eventually to full blown self-advocates who are willing and able to ask any question they need to ask in order to receive the information that will lead them to whatever solution they’re looking for. There are a lot of adults in offices across the country who are afraid to ask questions, so just developing those skills early on really makes an impact.
Q: Ashlyn, what work have you been digging into at CAPS?
When I first joined CAPS, I started doing a bunch of research into where technology is headed. More specifically, I was interested in finding how technology was impacting the health sector. I’ve always had a bunch of health issues growing up, and so I started thinking about new parents and monitoring the health of their babies. I came up with the idea of a bracelet that could monitor a baby’s vitals and send a notification to parents’ phones if there were any irregularities.
During this process, I conducted market research, created a website, designed a prototype for the phone application, and participated in pitch competitions where I was able to get incredibly valuable feedback. Currently, I’m at a roadblock engineering the advanced prototype. It’s advanced technology and it’s medicine, a field I never thought I’d go into. But, as a member of the CAPS Advisory Board, I got lucky by sitting at the right table at the right time. I gave a tour of CAPS to a professional who works at Garmin and after hearing about my project, he connected me to a Garmin software engineer who is now mentoring me. Next semester, I plan to work more deeply on the software development side of my idea.
Q: Corey, how do you develop relationships with business partners?
Corey: Our program relies on strong connections to professionals throughout the course of the year. In the beginning of our startup, it was about reaching out and asking people if they’d be willing to take a risk. Now, we’re really negotiating for win-wins—asking business partners what they need and matching it to the interests of our innovative, creative young people who are ready to provide their skills.
Building these relationships is all about being out in the community, outside our four walls, and really making sure we can provide value to our business partners (and vice versa). It’s evolved into true partnerships, rather than professional organizations feeling like they are doing us a favor (like it has been in the past). The secondary impact has been current business partners speaking with other businesses, which has led to people coming to us (rather than us to them) saying they want to work with us. The roles have swapped for the most part. It’s an evolution; it takes time. But, once you get the snowball rolling, it’s really fun.
Q: What do you wish people asked you more about your CAPS experience?
Ashlyn: A lot of students ask me if they should take the opportunity, and of course I say, “Yes, do it!” Adults ask more about what we do in our CAPS classes and what skills their own children will develop. In general, people ask me about the projects I’m working on and my accomplishments. But, what nobody seems to ask that I wish they would is: What impact has CAPS had on me and how I’ve grown as a result?
Corey: We host large groups of educators that will tour CAPS with the hope of shifting their own model or practice. And, what I’ve noticed is how easy it is to get distracted by the wrong things—facility architecture, furniture, equipment, etc. I’m not saying these things aren’t important, they do shape our culture, but I don’t feel like these things are requirements to change how we learn or teach.
I wish more of the questions were about shifting mindsets and less were about what we see with our eyes. Most of the questions focus on product over process. They just want things they can check off a to-do list. How can I build the right building? How can I create the right curriculum? It’s all about “stuff.”
If you don’t have people who can shift their mindset, if you don’t have administrators who can help teachers get there (and vice versa), if you don’t have students who have the freedom to discover on their own, and if you can’t set that culture (which is a culture that can be set anywhere), then you’re dead in the water.
You could have the nicest building in the world with the greatest equipment, but if the instructors are teaching the way we’ve always been taught, it’s not going to change the learning experience. So, I wish more people would ask about the process of shifting mindsets and the possibilities within our own region, with our own restraints, because there is an answer to that question; it can be done. But, you have to get to the heart of the adaptive work and not let the technical work be a distraction.
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