Sylvan Hills juniors Steven Anderson (from left), Terriya Jones, Douglas Whidden and Hayley Cross plan to sign up for a second year of culinary classes in Jacksonville.
Leader staff writer
It’s been two years since Drew McLain roamed the halls of North Pulaski High School, but he frequently pops in, updating culinary-arts teacher Teresa Perkins on his progress. McLain, now in his second year at Pulaski Technical College, is working on a culinary-arts degree, but he recalls his high school days fondly.
Prior to entering his sophomore year at NPHS, he signed up for a culinary arts class “just to try it.” The program focused on professional food preparation, from nutrition to fancy French cuts. It was a great fit for him.
“I loved it,” he says without hesitation.
The North Pulaski cooking program and its student-run restaurant Simply Delicious have been cherished by the community for years. Since North Pulaski will become a middle school next year, and its students will attend Jacksonville High, the future of the cooking program may have seemed uncertain.
But Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District officials said the culinary arts program will have a place at the new high school campus when it’s completed in 2019.
In the meantime, the cooking classes and restaurant will continue at the North Pulaski campus.
“This student is a great example of what our goals are,” said Jeremy Owoh, JNP assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “We want to provide students with direction and opportunities.”
The high school’s culinary arts program offers students a number of classes, including Culinary Arts I and II. There are supplemental classes such as nutrition that benefit students, Perkins said.
The culinary program is currently open to students from Jacksonville, Sylvan Hills and North Pulaski high schools.
Perkins usually has about 23 students, give or take a half dozen, who complete the program, and for those graduating students who maintained at least a 3.0 GPA, it can be worth free tuition at Pulaski Tech.
The two-year college in North Little Rock offers a variety of culinary studies, such as classes on baking, pastry, basic food prep, wine and spirits and hospitality management. McLain says his time at NPHS prepared him well for his post high school studies.
As important as their studies, Simply Delicious, the only student-run restaurant in Arkansas and now in its 28th year, provides students with on-the-job training, Perkins says. It’s part of the culinary program.
Owoh says the new district will embrace the program, saying, “We’re pleased to have it for our students and the community.”
While architectural plans of the new high school have not been finalized, the district is making room for the culinary arts and automotive programs, he said.
IT’S THAT GOOD
Perkins, who has taught the program for eight years, says she hopes students gain experience and learn through the operation of Simply Delicious.
“I want them to know what they’re capable of and leave with a good idea of the demands of the business,” she says.
For others, she says, “They might realize that they don’t want to be a chef.”
She wants them to understand the workings of the back of the house (the kitchen area), as well as the front of the house, referring to the staff who fill positions like waiter or hostess.
More than learning the lingo and developing a skill set that translates into real-world employment, she says the kids get to earn a little money.
Restaurant sales are split between the students and the program, with 80 percent split going to students. The size of a student’s check depends on the number of hours worked over the year, Perkins says. The balance is used to buy new equipment and purchase supplies.
Students like Nate Robbins, a Jacksonville High School senior, and Zachary Diaz, a North Pulaski High School senior, learn restaurant-musts like menu planning, ordering produce and the supplies needed to prepare meals, rolling silverware, cleaning and customer service.
Zachary, who sports a second-year black culinary arts’ jacket, plans to join the Air Force, and he sees cooking as a future hobby, but he says, “I learned a lot and really enjoyed the classes.”
First year students wear white jackets.
“It’s a great learning tool,” Perkins says about Simply Delicious.
First year culinary-arts junior Terriya Jones says she plans to complete the program next year as a senior.
Like McLain, she said she “loves” the program and has “learned how to cook properly.”
NPHS senior and Brazilian exchange student Fernando Domingos is also a fan of the program and says he plans to use the skills he has learned in this class to pay for his college education.
Students have also won state and national awards for their cooking and management skills.
GOING OLD SCHOOL
According to a Thomas Fordham Institute study, published in April by Shaun M. Dougherty, Arkansas leads the nation in collection of data about the value of career and technical education (CTE).
The report states that this type of education “is a far cry from vo-tech. No longer isolated shop classes for students showing little future promise. CTE coursework is now strategic and sequenced. It entails skill building for careers in fields like information technology, health sciences and advanced manufacturing. Secondary CTE is meant to be a coherent pathway, started in high school, into authentic technical education option and credentials, at the postsecondary level.”
Jake Walker, Ph.D., project director for CTE and Workforce Research at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway, provided data for the study.
Walker said Arkansas students that are exposed to CTE are more likely to graduate high school and enroll in a two-year college.
“We’re very proud of the study,” said Kathy Edgerton, Arkansas Department of Career Education’s communication director.
The ADC’s division of Career and Technical Education also participated in the study and oversees the CTE curriculum in schools across the state.
After years of being considered “a dumping ground” for troublemakers and academic underachievers, Walker said education is coming full circle. Attitudes are changing and CTC is considered a valuable resource for students, whether they plan to study at a university or not.
“The vision of CTE is being reshaped and the trend toward CTE is increasing,” he said.
Perkins said, “College is not for everyone.”
THE NEW VOCATIONALISM
Instead of kids graduating, or not, and spending years trying to find a suitable and money-making job, CTE is designed to give kids a head start. Walker also said CTC is having a positive impact on students that are male, and who qualify for free and reduced lunches.
Edgerton said ACE is trying to get more girls interested in many of the CTE’s male-dominated professions.
Owoh said, “We definitely see the value of CTE…We want to make sure all our students have a plan in place before graduation.”
Jacksonville Alderman Kenny Elliot said he supports the continuation of the CTE programs at the high school level.
“When talking to industries that are considering relocating to Jacksonville, their first question is about a trained workforce,” he said.
“I feel it should be important part of the new district,” and Elliot said he supports a possible expansion of the new district’s CTC offerings.
Owoh said the new district is talking with the Pulaski County Special School District about allowing students to attend CTE programs off campus so PCSSD students could sign up for the culinary-arts program or JNP students could attend a program at PCSSD.
They are also talking with Pulaski Tech and Arkansas Welding Academy in Jacksonville about a CTE welding partnership, Owoh said.
Not only are industries pushing for more advanced manufacture-ready graduates because of skilled workforce shortages, but groups like the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce are forming partnerships with school districts like North Little Rock to introduce CTE at a younger age, Walker said.
Edgerton said, “We’re working closely with industries and that’s driving the kind of classes we’re offering. We want to make sure the classes are up-to-date, and we don’t want to offer classes that won’t benefit the student.”
As much as capturing the imagination of the students, Edgerton said, “We have to educate the parents.”
Many parents grew up in an era when a four-year college degree was the goal. These days CTE students can graduate high school with a certificate—and job ready.
“Welders,” which are in short supply in Arkansas, “might make $20,000, $30,000 to start,” Edgerton said.
They can also build upon their high school CTE at a two- or four-year institution.
Perhaps also impacting the trend was the economic downturn of the mid-2000s when the college-educated unemployed had difficulty finding jobs and turned to two-year institutions for “real life” job training, Walker said.