Monday, April 7, 2014

What's Cooking at Rural Schools? More Than You'd Think!

Stafford Schools USD 349 is a small school in a small Kansas town. But small doesn't equate with dying or stagnating. The small school continually is looking for big ways to make a difference in the lives of their students and in the community.

For the past two years, Stafford Schools has been working to convert its Family and Consumer Science room into a commercial kitchen.

A couple of weeks ago, Randy and I went to a fundraiser dinner at the school for the culinary arts program. SHS Alumni Barry and Meta (Newell) West shared their knowledge of cooking and baking with culinary arts students at SHS during the day.
Then Barry (SHS Class of 1961) and Meta (SHS class of 1965) demonstrated techniques to the patrons who gathered that evening to see the new kitchen being used (and eat a fabulous three-course meal).
Culinary Arts instructor Denise Dickson talks about the program with dinner attendees.
For several years, Superintendent Mary Jo Taylor and the Stafford USD 349 Board of Education had been contemplating the future of the Family and Consumer Science program. The leaders were looking for a way to make FACS more relevant to career-oriented individuals.

Career emphasis isn't a new idea at Stafford Schools. Several years ago, the school opened the Stafford Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (SEED) Center at a downtown Main Street location. The SEED program is an innovative approach for meeting the educational and school-to-work preparation needs of high school students.   SEED Center classes are elective classes.  Students learn entrepreneurship and marketing principles while participating in individual and group projects. Each student operates an entrepreneurship project and utilizes marketing strategies to promote his/her business project. Students are allowed to keep 70 percent of their net profits. (Businesses have included T-shirt design, converting videos to DVDs, personalized dog collars and lip balm, just to name a few.)
The SEED Center, Photo from SEED's Facebook page
In addition, there are students who've been taking classes in a health care curriculum. They can get health care certifications, like Certified Medication Aide, etc. Many of them gets hands-on experience working at the Stafford County Hospital. (Randy had blood expertly drawn by a high school senior for some recent lab work there. The same student helped draw blood at the health fair last year.)

The commercial kitchen is yet another way to introduce students to possible future careers.
"The Commercial Kitchen is a project that was built out of a desire to have culinary arts curriculum available at SHS," Superintendent Taylor said. "This hope became a reality when a grant from the state became available from the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) called a Rigorous Program of Study (RPOS grant).  The effort to earn the grant was successful.  For the past two years, the Board of Education and staff have worked at planning curriculum and kitchen space.  Teachers have had to be trained for this unique method of teaching and learning.  In the end, the entire Family and Consumer Science Room has been remodeled and turned into a commercial kitchen.  It is an exciting new venture for the school."
School photo
Superintendent Taylor said that KSDE was looking for an innovative idea to provide a model for other schools in the state.

"KSDE leaders, especially a former FACS teacher now at KSDE, Gayla Randel, loved the idea of proving that a rural school could take on a project like this and provide a model for rural schools," Taylor said. "Most folks think this grant money should go to large schools to affect more students.  But, if many rural schools could learn from this, many students will be affected.  That is why much of our funding was to go to staff development training and technology.  We are supposed be be able to document our progress and present it in a way for other schools to learn."

After the school got the RPOS grant, Stafford County Economic Development Director Carolyn Dunn obtained another grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank for $20,000 to help pay for the new equipment.  The school paid for the remodeling of the kitchen.

As a component of the grant, the school also had to establish corporate sponsorships.  They include: Stafford County Flour Mills (more on that tomorrow), Apron Strings, Elroy's Pizza, Joan's Cafe, Wheatland Cafe and Catering and Stafford County Farm Bureau.  These entities don't necessarily give money but serve in an advisory capacity (although a couple of them are generous, Superintendent Taylor says).  Other partnerships are:  Kansas Sampler Foundation, Kansas Small Business Development Center, Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway, Stafford County Economic Development, Stafford County K-State Extension, Stafford Chamber of Commerce, STARS After-School Program and Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association.

"An advantage of learning this curriculum at the high school level is that students can obtain professional certifications that put them ahead of the game if they pursue this career path," Taylor said. "For example, an industry standard is the "Serve Safe" certificate.  Another is the "Pro-Start" certificate.  Upon graduating from high school a student may go straight to work as a cook in a restaurant or already have the background to take their career to the next level as a caterer, restaurant manager, restaurant owner or any number of careers in Hospitality and Tourism."

If students decide to climb the management ladder, SHS has articulation agreements with two community colleges, Barton Community College and North Central Kansas Technical College at Beloit and Hays.

"By articulating, it means that courses are already seamlessly coordinated to go from one step to the next with ease, thus increasing the efficiency of the education obtained," Taylor said.  "The only college currently offering a bachelor's degree in this major is Fort Hays.  We expect K-State to offer this major soon."

Culinary arts students at SHS can take classes offered in a Culinary Arts and Management Strand through a Career Cluster, part of KSDE's Career and Technical Education Curriculum. The classes include culinary arts I and II, baking and pastry I and II, food science and event planning and management. SHS won't offer all the classes each year.

The reason I am such a big fan of CTE," Taylor said, "is that students can take an interest and pursue it a little or turn it into their life's work.  Certainly the certificates could help a college student get a higher paying job at a restaurant and help them with college expenses."

Yes, high school classes can have a profound effect on your life. Meta Newell West, who was one of the chefs at the culinary arts fundraiser, brought with her a recipe book she compiled during Stafford High School home economics classes. (Her former home economics teacher, Betty Byer, was at the fundraiser dinner!)
The methods may change over the years, but SHS has been working to effectively educate its students for more than 100 years.

**If you're in the Stafford area and missed the fundraiser, you still have an opportunity to see the commercial kitchen, as well as other new features of the school, including a greenhouse and safe room. The school will host an open house from 6:30 to 8 PM Tuesday, April 8. Enter through the high school and check in at the Commons Area for tours**


  1. This is awesome! I love stories like these about small towns and schools making great decisions to impact people and communities!

    1. We are very fortunate to have administrators and teachers in our community who are dedicated to a quality learning environment for our students. The school is such an important part of the community, too! Thanks for commenting!