The Waukee APEX program at Waukee High School partners with businesses to provide high school students with real-life business experiences before they even get to college. The program now inhabits the Waukee Innovation and Learning Center (WILC), which opened in January.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds visited students in the Waukee APEX program on Thursday, April 6 and got to see the WILC for the first time. Along with her was Dan Houston, CEO of the Principal Financial Group.

Reynolds sang the praises of the professional atmosphere the Waukee APEX program allows students to learn in and even said that she has grandchildren who may be able to participate in the future.

“I have four grandchildren that are actually in the Waukee School District, so I’m already telling them how lucky they are to have the opportunity that all of you have to participate in this professional atmosphere and venue and I think, really, it’s going to prepare you so well for the opportunities going forward,” Reynolds said to the crowd of students and faculty during the visit.

Reynolds’s visit was a part of the Spring Future Ready Iowa Tour. Future Ready Iowa is an initiative to “build Iowa’s talent pipeline,” according to The goal of the initiative is for “70 percent of Iowa’s workforce to have education or training beyond high school by 2025.”

“What we’re seeing is that there are some great programs happening across the state, great partnerships,” Reynolds said. “We’re trying to see what those look like again, just like we did with APEX, look for opportunities that we can scale and drive those partnerships across the State of Iowa.”

Houston, who is also the co-chair of Future Ready Iowa, also talked about the professional atmosphere the WILC provides to APEX students.

“The first thing I thought about, because it’s my first time in the building, is how much this building looks like a business nowadays,” Houston said. “Even if it’s a high-tech firm that has lots of open space, open class rooms, lots of open space for collaboration because it’s one of the key attributes of what’s necessary.”

Speaking to the students, Houston discussed the differences in education requirements today, versus when some of their parents were young and coming out of high school.

He mentioned that 75 percent of them, coming out of high school, could have gotten a job without a college education at a place like Principal Financial Group. He said that that has changed in the last 30 years.

“Today, 90 percent of our hires have a college degree or an advanced degree and that number continues to go down further and further and further,” Houston said. “So the point I’m going to try and make to you is, you don’t have a choice in the matter. If you’re going to be a contributor in the workforce in the future, the skill sets that you’re learning at this innovation center are the skill sets that you’re going to need, not just to be successful, but, frankly, to survive.”

Reynolds and Houston, after talking to the group of students, went on a walking tour of the building and got to see presentations and hear from students from the various “strands” of the program. They even got to do a real-life simulation in the actuarial sciences strand where they used dice to simulate life situations and had to decide what types of insurance they should buy.

Cindy McDonald, Waukee Schools Superintendent, said that it was important to host Reynolds and Houston, to tell them more about the APEX program and to show them how the environment in the building makes a difference in productivity and wellness.

“For them to be here gave us a chance to showcase the program and talk about the future and really transforming the educational experience for students at the high school level,” McDonald said.

Under the leadership former Superintendent, David Wilkerson, the Waukee APEX program was formed and the WILC was built as a way to bridge the gap in time until they can bond out to build a second high school building.

McDonald said that the cost of building the WILC was just under $13 million, while a new school building could cost as much as $100 million.

Teachers that teach in the APEX program also teach half days at Waukee High School.

“So it really comes down to about a wash in terms of the staffing needs, so we don’t have a ton of additional cost there,” McDonald said. “So that’s really worked out well for us.”

Michelle Hill, director of the Waukee APEX program, said that the new building and the support from the district and the staff help showcase the program when other school districts visit to see what it’s all about.

“It’s a very inspirational place to walk into just as far as seeing what the possibilities are, but then the staff, everybody, our district is very supportive of just kind of coaching them through all the questions that they have,” Hill said. “We get a lot of the same questions a lot when they come for visits.”

After Reynolds and Houston completed their tour of the building, they sat in on a round-table discussion, which included APEX students and staff. They were able to answer a few questions and hear about experiences from the students and staff.

Hill said that the students getting to share their stories and experiences of their time in the program was the biggest takeaway from the discussion.

“I’d say the number one thing when anybody comes to visit, but especially today at the round table is the students’ stories, and their experiences and how it’s affected them, changed their path, may have helped them find a better path, maybe for future, save them time, money on their college plans, things like that,” Hill said.

“But the student associates that we have, they’re just so impressive. You may not know, but some of the students in the room don’t have the best GPAs, previously may not have had the best attendance records, maybe have had experiences elsewhere where they didn’t seem like how they are today and so that’s one of the things that we’re most proud of is that this program is for everyone.”

She said that the program helps students find areas they are interested in, but also areas in which they need to grow.