New Center for Academic Achievement provides state-of-the-art home for Shawnee Mission’s professional training programs

Biotechnology students examined a moth on their electronic microscope at the new Center for Academic Achievement.
Biotechnology students examined a moth on their electronic microscope at the new Center for Academic Achievement.

Four students crowded around the laptop in teacher Brenda Bott’s lab, squinting at the screen. Today’s task was to get familiar with the high-powered microscopes on their tables, including the electronic microscope hooked up to a video camera. They’d found a dead moth in the windowsill, and decided it made the perfect trial subject.

With a few adjustments to the knobs, the moth’s bulging eyes and feathery hairs were tack sharp through the view finder. A student teacher, who is training to become an educator after spending years at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, helps the students pull up the image from the microscope on a computer, and then projects it onto a large monitor at the front of the class.

“Like that!” Bott said, looking into the moth’s black eye on the monitor. “I want to get pictures like that printed out for the walls.”

The students are giddy — “I honestly can’t believe we can do that,” said one — and it’s not hard to see why.

Three weeks into the school year, the district’s new Center for Academic Achievement is starting to become the lively hub of advanced education opportunities administrators envisioned when they proposed the facility back in 2014.

The west half of the 130,000 square foot, $35 million building, which was constructed on the site of the former Antioch Middle School, is occupied by administrative offices, a fitness center open to all district employees, and a medical clinic where employees can get routine checkups. The other half is dedicated to state-of-the-art learning environments, from the new home for the district’s culinary arts program and Broadmoor Bistro restaurant to a mock emergency room where medical health science students run response scenarios on medical dummies.

On a typical weekday, you might find students hard at work sketching out characters for a video game they’ll code as part of the animation and interactive media program, while next door some aspiring civil engineers in the Project Lead the Way program are using white boards to mock up possible designs for an energy efficient Habitat for Humanity house.

These types of advanced professional classes, called “signature programs” by the district, have been around for two decades in Shawnee Mission. But they’ve gained serious momentum in the past several years as administrators have looked for ways to create high-value opportunities that not only prepare students for real-world careers, but also get them energized about their education.

“The goal for us is that every student can find a connection point, whether they come here [to the Center for Academic Achievement], or they find something at their home high school,” said Christy Ziegler, the district’s assistant superintendent for innovation and performance. “[We want to] get them excited about coming to school every single day, and give them programs that they can see a purpose for.”

Most of the signature program tracks begin at students’ home high schools, where they take introductory coursework. After a student has taken an intro class, he or she is eligible for the advanced courses offered at the CAA, where they will spend two hours most school days getting professional level training. The curriculum for each of the signature programs is developed in collaboration with an industry advisory council, an effort administrators put in place to ensure the practical lessons students were learning would be applicable in workforce. A number of the programs even offer students the chance to earn professional credentials which still in high school. Medical health sciences students, for example, can earn their certified nursing assistance credentials through the program. Engineering students can get certified in Autodesk, the industry standard design software.

The district provides transportation to and from the CAA for the signature programs, making them accessible to every high schooler.

“Any one can come,” Ziegler said. “A lot of this is about access, and making sure these opportunities are open to all students.”

And the new setting has advantages beyond the modern facilities, says Ziegler. It’s also created a great opportunity for students and district level administrators to connect. The Broadmoor Bistro operates a coffee shop and pastry counter that’s open during the day, creating a spot where teachers, students — and even members of the community — can bump into one another and chat.

“Now we get to see students every day and what their experiences are like,” she said.

The Center for Academic Achievement is now a hub for students in the district's signature programs.
The Center for Academic Achievement is now a hub for students in the district’s signature programs.
Teacher Greg Thiel worked through some top-level guidelines on a design project for his Project Lead the Way students.
Teacher Greg Thiel worked through some top-level guidelines on a design project for his Project Lead the Way students.
Connie Gandy starts with anatomy basics with her medical health science students.
Connie Gandy starts with anatomy basics with her medical health science students.
Student chefs bake up the products for sale in the Broodmoor Bistro each day, and man the counter.
Student chefs bake up the products for sale in the Broodmoor Bistro each day, and man the counter.