U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ stop at a tiny private school in Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood earlier this year became a flashpoint in a national conversation about transgender rights.
The education department’s rollback of Obama-era protections for transgender students quickly overshadowed DeVos’ purported reasons for visiting Kansas City Academy – an innovative fine arts curriculum and farm-to-table culinary program.
DeVos declined to explain how she ended up at a school known for its liberal, progressive values, other than to say her “Rethink Schools” tour had taken her to schools that were doing things differently, creatively and innovatively.
So when Head of School Kory Gallagher invited me back to KCA for lunch, I decided to take him up on his offer.
But first, I wanted to know what kind of culinary arts education other students in the metro were getting.
Kansas City Public Schools
I started my exploration at Manual Career and Technical Center, where Rashawn Caruthers is director of Career and Technical Education for Kansas City Public Schools. “CTE” is a buzzword in education right now, but what it represents is a pretty big shift in thinking about how schools prepare students for life after graduation. Trades have long been taught at career centers like Manual. Now schools are teaching soft skills as well.
“You know, how to think critically, how to show up on time, how to have a good work ethic, how to problem solve, how to collaborate,” Caruthers says. “That’s really the biggest change – the need to really align what we’re doing and not start it in high school, but start it at the very beginning. We need to embed those common sector competencies, and we really need to give them those STEM-related technical skills as well.”
To that end, kindergartners are being taught to code as KCPS realigns its curriculum K-12 to prepare kids for the increasingly high tech jobs of the future. But with the juniors and seniors at Manual now, Caruthers must play catch up.
“We talk to them about what is the difference between college and career, and what are the pros and cons of each. Then we arm them with dual credit and industry-recognized credentials,” says Caruthers.
Manual’s culinary classrooms got a $1.5 million facelift three years ago. Caruthers points to the gleaming stainless steel appliances.
“We’re providing a really commercial kitchen for our students. There’s a hot foods side and a pastry side. In the front is where our coffee shop will be,” Caruthers says. “We will be offering barista training in the future. It’ll be kind of like a mini Starbucks. We call it the Cardinal Cafe.”
It’s a sign of how the culinary arts program at Manual is changing with the times. It remains one of the center’s most popular offerings, even as KCPS adds more STEM-focused programs in engineering and computer science.
“Because kids are like, ‘Oh, I like to eat.’ But then they get in and see that it’s more than just eating. Safety and sanitation are a must,” Caruthers says. “They’re surprised by how academic the program is. Because they have to know math. They have to know English language arts.”
Any student who lives in the district can take classes at Manual, even if they attend a charter or private school. KCPS also partners with other school districts to provide career services to their students.
It’s a good value when you consider tuition at the nation’s top culinary schools averages $28,000 a year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And there’s evidence that an expensive degree doesn’t necessarily pay off – a sous chef with a high school diploma makes almost as much as a sous chef with a four-year degree.
This is where those college and career conversations come into play as educators help their students figure out what’s next.
DeLaSalle Education Center
Eric Johnson went through the culinary arts program at Manual, attended Johnson County Community College and worked in the industry for several years before landing his new gig – teaching students at DeLaSalle Education Center how to cook.
DeLaSalle is a small charter high school that focuses on dropout recovery. The kitchen is in a converted classroom off the cafeteria. Today Chef Johnson is showing his class how to deep fry fish and chips. Vats of hot oil pop and crackle.
“We’re using Pacific cod, caught fresh from Alaska. All this week we’ve been learning about different types of fish and how they’re caught and how they’re processed,” says Johnson as his students peel potatoes. The more adventurous ones are using a mandolin to cut waffle fries.
Noticing the potatoes are faintly pink, an alarmed student asks, “Did somebody cut themselves or something?”
“No,” Johnson explains, “they’re starting to oxidize. That’s why you put your potatoes in water once you cut them.”
Still, he warns the students to watch their knuckles.
Johnson took the job because he was looking to give back. He says he knows not all of his students will go on to culinary school, but he hopes he can teach them to cook for themselves and their families.
While her classmates eat their fish and chips, senior Versalle Eubanks spoons butter and brown sugar into a muffin tin for mini pineapple upside-down cakes.
“It’s good,” Versalle assures me. “We made it yesterday, and we gave it to the staff, and they were like, ‘Oooh, can we have some more?’ So I’m about to make some more. I wanted to do this last night, but I didn’t have any of the stuff for it.”
Part of the culinary arts curriculum at both Manual and DeLaSalle is exposing students to foods their families might not eat at home. Making a food themselves makes teenagers more willing to try new things.
Like Johnson, Versalle has decided she wants to attend JCCC. Earlier this semester, she and a few of her classmates got a chance to work a banquet at the community college.
“We served elk sausage and butternut squash,” Versalle says.
Kansas City Academy
The big difference between the culinary arts programs at Manual and DeLaSalle and KCA is the students aren’t cooking for their classmates. At KCA, culinary students prepare school lunch four days a week.
By 9:30 a.m., Chef Mark Zukaitis’ first class has already prepared butternut squash, two kinds of gravy, all natural ham, veggie burgers, salmon and red curry garbanzo beans.
“Everyone loves our beans,” he says as senior Tiger Baker, the only student in Zukaitis’ second class, arrives. He puts Tiger to work slicing red bell peppers – he jokes that at this point in the school year, the kids don’t actually need him – and sits down to talk to me about Bistro Kids, the lunch program that feeds KCA and several other Missouri private schools.
“I show them how to hold a knife properly, which knife to use for what task,” Zukaitis says. “I’ll ask someone to season something, and they’ll say, ‘With what?’ And I’ll say, ‘Look at all the choices we have here.’”
Bistro Kids started at KCA as a nutritional education program, but it evolved with Zukaitis had several students who wanted to cook. This year he has 16 students, which is a lot when you consider enrollment at KCA is just 72. Five, including Tiger, are on track to earn a certificate in culinary arts.
“We do have students who have gone on to culinary school to become a chef or restaurant manager as a career,” says Zukaitis, though he adds that he doesn’t encourage it.
This surprises me. After all, isn’t that the point of a culinary arts program? “Why not?” I ask.
“The life of a chef or manager isn’t the easiest thing out there,” Zukaitis, who spent his 20s and early 30s working in kitchens. “I was working 60 to 100 hours a week. I had two daughters who were waking up after I left for work and going to bed before I was home from work.”
Still, Zukaitis will work with any student who really wants to attend culinary school. He just wants them to be really sure that’s what they want to do with their life. He hasn’t managed to dissuade Tiger, who works as a dishwasher at one local restaurant and does prep work at another.
“I think I might end up owning my own restaurant at some point,” Tiger tells me, “but that’s a little bit further down the line.”
Tiger says cooking for his friends and classmates at school has changed how he eats at home.
“You actually have a choice on your food instead of mystery meat,” Tiger says. “Knowing what goes into my food and how to make it has made me actually want to cook at home. Instead of microwaving foods constantly, I’m cooking for myself.”
Tiger graduates this year, but he says he’ll come back for lunch because the food is so good. It certainly smells amazing. Faculty members keep poking their heads in to tell Zukaitis as much.
Zukaitis takes his next class out to the garden – it’s behind the school – to pick tomatoes for the salad bar. It’s one of those blustery fall days, overcast and gray, rain on the horizon. What produce the culinary students can’t get from the garden comes from a network of local suppliers.
Finally, it’s time for lunch. It’s an impressive spread. Someone taps me on the shoulder. It’s the principal who invited me, Gallagher.
“You should definitely drop the microphone,” he tells me.
I don’t usually get to eat while I’m reporting, I reply.
“Well, since no one else can actually taste it, it’s up to you to tell them,” Zukaitis says. “It’s the best lunch in town, and it’s only $5.”
He’s not kidding. But you don’t have to take my word for it. KCA is open to the public Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for lunch when school is in session.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.