Students in Shakopee will ditch their desks this fall for some real-world business experience at the area’s biggest attractions: Canterbury Park, Valleyfair, Mystic Lake Casino and the Renaissance Festival.

The school district is extending its Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) Academy into a second school year with courses in business administration and management at the city’s RiverSouth destinations. The program gives eligible juniors and seniors with interests in entertainment and tourism a glimpse into professional settings.

Last fall, about 40 students participated in programs in digital design at Shutterfly, a photo company, and in health care and medicine at St. Francis Regional Medical Center.

“It was actually kind of nice to get out of the high school and be in a new environment,” said Sarah Koch, 17, who spent last fall at St. Francis. “I was kind of experiencing things in the real world instead of high school with a bunch of other teenagers.”

Koch, also an athlete, interned at a dentist office during the fall. That experience taught her that she’s more interested in sports medicine, and she completed a capstone project on sleep deprivation and athletes.

“I got to observe the things they do,” she said. “They told me what they did to get to where they are today.”

Another crucial skill for a budding young professional: “I kind of know how to talk to adults and work with them.”

Her mother, Darcy, who teaches elementary school at the district, said she’s pleased with the opportunity. Working experience wasn’t readily available during her teen years.

“I graduated with people after four years who still didn’t know what they wanted to do,” she said.

Practicality pays off

The more likely return on investment is a perk, too.

“Financially, that’s pretty awesome, too,” Darcy said. She said she expects her daughter to graduate with more confidence in her career.

Organizers behind the elective CAPS program say students can explore their interests before forking over tuition dollars for a degree that could be a poor fit. Additionally, superintendent Rod Thompson said students can gain “soft skills” and a “competitive edge,” build their resumes and gain contacts at workplaces nearby home, where they may live during and after college to save money and pay off student loan debt.

The district’s director of teaching and learning, Nancy Thul, echoed the sentiment.

“A lot of time kids will go into postsecondary programs not really knowing what they want to do, and that can be an expensive proposition when they change their mind.”

Students will complete tasks relevant to marketing, information technology and customer service. For instance, Valleyfair General Manager Dave Frazier said students might update the park’s training materials and videos or analyze data from a recent brand study.

“We’ll work with kids and their interests and to design their program about what they want,” Frazier said.

For participating students, a typical fall school day will start with two hours at their respective sites. Then, students are expected to apply and interview for internships at RiverSouth or other locations during the spring. They’ll also earn dual credit with Shakopee High and Normandale Community College.

“When I think of my high school experience, it was pretty much in the desk,” Darcy Koch said. “I didn’t have the chance to explore things creatively and think critically.”