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Thursday, May 5, 2016 12:25 am

Picking up the check

Why should public schools train private workers?

ILLUSTRATION BY JASON BENAVIDES/TNS

 

The memory of it lingers after 50 years. Lunchtimes when I was a student in District 186 schools meant mock pizza pie. While that dish was an awful eating experience, it was a valuable learning experience, because pondering what was in it made me realize that not everything I was being offered in school was quite what it seemed.

Today, I read, District 186 kids are learning other things from food. Lanphier High School now offers its freshmen an Introduction to Culinary Arts, and sophomores and juniors can earn further credit in topics culinary from baking and pastry arts to international foods. As seniors, they can put it all to use helping to prepare meals for sports banquets and teacher in-service days – a chance for students to cram things down their teachers’ throats for a change. According to a recent State Journal-Register report by Jason Nevel, the program also helps students find work in local restaurants while still in school.

Chelsey Ziebler, the family and consumer science teacher behind the program, sounds like a classic policy entrepreneur. Every largish organization (including State of Illinois agencies) has them – bright people who invent new programs and who are adept at marketing them to their superiors, who in turn invest resources in the form of manpower or money to make them happen. Ziebler said she hopes someday to build a commercial kitchen and restaurant staffed by students that is open to the public over the lunch hour.

Training older adolescents in real-world skills is a great idea whatever the subject. Done right, a sequence of culinary courses is an opportunity to teach disciplines such as history, anthropology, math and science, or at least apply in a new context what students have already learned. (For years the best popular science program on TV was Alton Brown’s “Good Eats.” Best popular history program too, come to think of it.)

The kids in the Lanphier program say they are grateful for the chance to learn marketable skills because they are not interested in college. They are among the roughly one-third of U.S. high schoolers who don’t buy the college con. Nonetheless, as I complained in a 2013 column, “Do by learning,” schools have been focused on college prep while what used to be called vocational training struggles for resources and respect. The low state of training for blue-collar or, in this case, no-collar jobs owes much to status snobbery, and District 186 did well when it renamed the old home ec kitchen at Lanphier the “culinary lab.” “Presentation” matters as much when you offer a school course as when you offer a dinner course.

But is culinary training much better? True, you can get a job without putting your future in hock with student loans, and I expect that these kids will find jobs doing what they are trained for, which is not true of most of their classmates who go on to college. (Machines in restaurants threaten servers’ jobs, but the cooks are probably safe for another generation.) But then being a chef has lower starting salaries than almost all college majors, too. And while kitchen work in a sit-down restaurant is one step up from mustard slapping at a burger joint, it remains high-stress low-wage work. Judging from the website of a big Illinois restaurant trade association, the questions most frequently asked by its members about employee relations are as follows:

Do I have to pay my employees for training sessions and staff meetings?
Can I charge my servers or cashiers for cash shortages or walkouts?
Can I charge my employees for damaged property or breakage?
Do I need to pay for time taken off for breaks?
When do I need to give a break?
Can I deduct the cost of employee meals from the wages that I pay?

A juice orange doesn’t get squeezed so hard.

Which brings up a larger question. Call it vocational training or call it artisanal apprenticeships – is job training really 186’s job to begin with? Why should public taxpayers pay to train workers for private businesses? The Illinois Restaurant Association, for example, offers model curricula, scholarships for the college-bound and competitions for high schoolers along the lines of science fairs or state sport championships, all to encourage youngsters to go into their line of work. What it doesn’t offer, apparently, is to pay for programs like Lanphier’s.

Ah, you say, local restaurants are property tax-payers, and they thus have the right shape the local schools they pay for, just everyone else. Do they? A curriculum is not a menu at a restaurant from which the customer gets to have it done their way. I say leave the learning to schools, and the training of entry level workers to the businesses that benefit from them. Ms. Ziebler has shown those businesses how it can be done; all they have to do is pick up the check. 

Correction: In the original versions of this column I stupidly mis-spelled the name of the woman who runs Lanphier's successful culinary arts program. She is in fact Chelsey Ziebler. Sorry.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.


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