The industrial kitchen displayed all the hectic activity of a reality TV cooking show.
Chefs tended anxiously to their creations – “Do these bread crumbs look browned enough?” – and kept a watchful eye on the progress of their teammates – “That whipped cream needs to be fluffy, fluFF-ie.”
This was finals day for the seniors in the culinary arts program at San Juan High School in Citrus Heights. The teams of young chefs had 90 minutes to complete a menu of sautéed chicken breast with mustard cream sauce, rice pilaf, fresh broccoli sauté, and Danish apple trifle for dessert.
The flashy, industrial quality kitchen facility could be an incubator for the next Alice Waters or Bobby Flay. It also stands as a symbol of the changing face of home economics programs in California.
Once known as domestic education that raised images of young women learning how to be housewives, home economics of today is a popular career program that serves more than 160,000 students across the state. And it’s not just about cooking lump-free gravy or sewing potholders.
The programs – formally called Home Economics Careers and Technology Education – encompass fields ranging from culinary arts and food service to fashion design, hospitality and tourism, child development, nutrition and interior design.
“I think a lot of people think more about the ’50s or ’60s stereotype, that home ec is all women learning house stuff,” said Joshua deHaydu, a 17-year-old senior in San Juan High’s culinary program. But don’t get caught up on “stereotypes that used to exist,” deHaydu, who has been a back-up left tackle and nose guard on the school football team, counsels, “because they don’t really anymore.”
Mindful of the stereotype, every other state has ditched the “home economics” title, renaming the courses Family and Consumer Sciences in an effort to reflect the evolving nature of the subject matter. California is the only state that still uses “home economics careers” – with an heavy emphasis on careers, said Tanya Wright, education programs consultant in the Agriculture and Home Economics Education Unit at the California Department of Education.
“It just wasn’t the right climate in California to focus on family,” Wright said of the national effort nearly two decades ago to rename the programs. “It was really to focus on careers.”
Home economics has long been a staple in the California education system, dating back at least to 1917, Wright said. The early programs focused on life skills and home making. But a statewide shift in the late ’90s and early 2000s toward career pathways in the high schools helped push home economics to their current focus, Wright said.
Today, home economics is offered as an elective at middle and high schools throughout California. Life skills are still a component of the programs, especially at the middle school level, where students may receive an introduction to nutrition, basic sewing and cooking, and first aid. Some middle school programs even offer babysitting training, allowing students to graduate with industry certifications in first aid and CPR, Wright said.
“Even as we focus on core academic areas, the things kids really want to do are the practical life skills,” said Taudine Andrew, culinary instructor at Rocklin High School. “And these are not fluff courses.”
At the high school level, however, the programs bear little resemblance to the home economics classes many may remember from their youth.
More than 800 home economic career programs operate in the state’s 1,400 comprehensive high schools, offering career-oriented programs designed to introduce students to future professions, Wright said.
A program in San Diego, for instance, introduces students to careers in child development by putting them to work in an on-campus preschool, Wright said.
At San Juan High School, students participate in a three-year sequence of culinary courses and graduate with a California ServSafe Food Handler Card, an industry certification. Along the way, students will run a 75-seat restaurant on the campus and will help cater professional events, such as the 1,000-person holiday luncheon students catered in November at the California Department of Education.
The campus also offers a separate sequence in baking and pastry arts, where students learn cake decorating and other skills.
At nearby Rocklin High School, a newly launched hospitality, recreation and tourism pathway will offer students a three-year program covering all aspects of a career in tourism, from food preparation and service to hotel and restaurant management opportunities, said culinary instructor Taudine Andrew. The program will culminate in a capstone project requiring students to participate in job shadowing or another work-based opportunity in tourism.
The demand for the program, now serving 172 students in its second year, is huge, said Andrew, who had to turn away 100 students this year. The hook for the teenage students is the lure of free food, but once they’re in, students receive an introduction to potentially lucrative careers in one of California’s top industries, she said.
“People think about home economics and they think about cooking and sewing and crying babies, but the reality is hospitality and tourism are all under the umbrella,” Andrew said. “We have a huge tourism industry in California and recreation and tourism are a major part of the economy. We’re training kids to be part of those hospitality jobs.”
The hospitality program expands on the home economics offerings previously offered at Rocklin High School. Students could take semester-long elective courses in childhood development and a course called “Living on Your Own,” where students received a smattering of life skills – some cooking, personal finance tips, and information on healthy relationships and job skills.
“Even as we focus on some of core academic areas, the things kids really want to do are the practical life skills,” Andrew said. “And these are not fluff courses,” she added, noting that the child development class met the “a-g” course criteria required for admission to University of California and California State University.
About 4.5 percent of the home economics technology programs offered throughout California currently meet a-g requirements, most of them in child development and education, Wright said. The number of courses submitted for a-g approval grows each year, she said.
Sandi Coulter, culinary arts instructor at San Juan High School, sees the courses as an important part of students’ high school careers. The students learn something they’ll always need – how to cook a decent meal – but also are introduced to other less tangible skills, such as teamwork, organization skills and the ability to take and follow direction.
“One of the things I see with students that aren’t in pathways is that they don’t really know how to do anything,” Coulter said.
Those are some of the perks of home economic career programs, Andrew said.
“When we say (home ec) people think about their junior high school experience where they sewed a pillow and made Orange Julius and may have had to balance a checkbook, and we don’t think about any of that as being relevant to our lives,” she said. “But when we move away from that and toward the courses we’re talking about, it becomes very relevant again. … You can take the skills from your basic cooking course or child development course and translate that into building a better home life and career for yourself.”
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