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Manitou Springs School District launches an in-house culinary program 

Mise en class

click to enlarge Paragon chef Victor Matthews joins D-14 staff to teach food skills. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Paragon chef Victor Matthews joins D-14 staff to teach food skills.

Math, science, English, history ... knife skills?

Yes, the conventional school day could use a little honing, as some stakeholders on the west side see it.

For a quirky, creative city with so much commerce centered on hospitality, why doesn't Manitou Springs School District 14 have its own culinary arts program?

That's a question Victor Matthews posed last fall to his fellow board members on the newly reformed and reinvigorated Manitou Springs Education Foundation, including D-14 superintendent Ed Longfield and MSEF president Farley McDonough, proprietor of Adam's Mountain Café. Matthews is the founder and dean of Paragon Culinary School, former chef of the Black Bear Restaurant — now Black Bear Distillery where he's the master distiller — and a father to children both currently in and formerly through D-14.

"We thought that was a fantastic question," says McDonough, "because Manitou has been so supportive of the arts, but it hasn't really done anything to address culinary arts specifically." If a child was interested in food studies, they would have to bus to Pikes Peak Community College for classes as part of its Area Vocational Programming (more on AVP below).

So to go it alone, MSEF first had to weather and win with Issue 3B, a property tax increase of $48 per property owner, annually, put before Manitou voters last November, which restored a shortfall of state funding for the district. No longer having to think of what to cut, Longfield and crew could actually consider what to add. In relation to this call for food education, which quickly gained traction, they started with a $500 allotment for a weekly, after-school culinary club, something small with which they could gauge student interest and begin building momentum.

Terrence Batson, a restaurant industry worker of 30 years turned D14 Spanish and German teacher, had already been running his own baking club called Breadheads since 2014. After meeting with Matthews, he agreed to transition the group toward wider culinary pursuits, and welcomed Matthews into his classroom several times during the past school year to teach. They'd often theme lessons around holidays such as Mardi Gras or Cinco de Mayo, "making an entry point to talk about cultural synthesis," he says.

So far so good, so Matthews adapted his entry-level Foundations class at Paragon with high school seniors in mind as another test group, and the school placed the class on the fall schedule. Around 65 kids expressed interest. "It was a massive response," considering the whole class only holds around 125 students. Only 15 were selected due to current facility space, and Matthews has taken a part-time job with the district to lead the studies, starting in late August.

"The goal of this course will be maximum efficiency," he says. "We want to make it rigorous, so if you take this class and graduate, you can go out into the field directly or to culinary school with some credits already in-hand."

Given the demand, McDonough says a long-term goal would be to add a commercial kitchen, plus multiple instructors and courses. For now, this year's class will operate out of the main kitchen in the elementary school after lunch service shuts down for the day. And McDonough, Matthews and Batson all say this is just the beginning of push to integrate culinary aspects through every grade level, with leadership opportunities stemming from having older students potentially oversee the younger ones with select projects.

Matthews calls that a "mentorship train" which could trickle down from high to middle to elementary school, building in other lessons such as nutrition studies and math (measuring cups to food-costing, etc.). Underlying that, he sees larger life-skills imparted, such as self-sustenance, like simply being able to cook for oneself confidently.

"It would be synergistic learning," says McDonough, "the idea of integrating different components so that the experience the student has isn't one-dimensional."

From the Breadheads experience, Batson also cites the importance of social aspects and teamwork. "So many learning connections can be made with food," he says. "On the scientific level, there's the rising of yeast and how molecules react." But on more personal levels, there's the "power of giving and making others happy through what they've made, there's an altruism to it."

He shares stories about students gifting bread to another teacher or friend, or the look of joy on a janitor's face when he receives a free muffin. "There's something really deep in us on a human level about sharing food, I'm not sure if it's institutional or animalistic, but when you share food you make people happy."

click to enlarge Muffin Topz members sell goodies outside the MAC this past weekend. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Muffin Topz members sell goodies outside the MAC this past weekend.

To that end, Batson and his students have launched Muffin Topz, a nonprofit integrated into the school that will task students to bake on Wednesdays and serve their goods at Thursday's Manitou Community Market in Mansions Park. The students won't get class credits, but they were treated to a safe-food-handling class via the Colorado State University extension office which effectively certifies them to sell on their own at home as part of the 4-year-old cottage foods legislation.

All of this might make it sound like Manitou Springs has stumbled onto something new with its culinary pursuits, but in many ways District 14 will just be playing catch-up to some of our other school districts.

The Colorado Restaurant Association Education Foundation, along with the broader CRA and Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association, co-operates Colorado ProStart inside 29 high schools, serving upwards of 800 students. ProStart is nationally certified, two-year hospitality management and foodservice program available to high school juniors and seniors. In addition to learning about food preparation, business management and customer service, participants undergo a year of paid internships and mentoring inside the industry, while earning college credit from partnering outfits like Pikes Peak Community College.

Mary Mino, CRAEF president and ProStart state director, says nationwide, around 140,000 students begin culinary educations via the larger organization. Here, ProStart works with Coronado, Wasson, Doherty and Woodland Park high schools. "We have very good programs in the Springs," she says, "because the teachers are well supported by the industry," namely restaurateurs and chefs active in the Pikes Peak Chapter of the CRA.

Nearly 70 percent of ProStart grads head on to college, Mino says, and only about 25 percent of those plan on cooking, while the remainder express intent toward management and business entrepreneurship. It's important to introduce students to the restaurant industry at the high school level, she says, because it ushers them "into a curriculum that at the very least provides the knowledge and skills to go out and successfully get a job."

By the time they've left ProStart, they should have become proficient in knife skills and food prep and production, cost-accounting, food safety, and some foundational basics like making the five mother sauces. PPCC culinary arts department chair, chef Michael Paradiso, says there's an added value to high-school level culinary training by essentially weeding out the dabblers from the real doers and helping focus students toward their optimal callings. "It's their passion, the ones that come to us after they've already had a taste of it," he says. "They're coming with a positive attitude — it's a strong plus."

Even then, "we tell them at orientation to go get a job right away, even if it's washing dishes," he says. "Just to get into the field. That's where you'll discover what you like."

So long as a high school culinary program meets PPCC standards and criteria, Paradiso and his team will test some students out of intro level classes, saving time and money, and allowing them to start farther down the path toward one of four culinary degrees that usually take two years to complete. Taking on a second or third degree, say Baking and Pastry or Sustainability and Dietary Cuisine, can be done reasonably inside of three years, provided they share many of the same prerequisites. PPCC students graduate as certified culinarians as recognized by the American Culinary Federation, which offers many higher certifications. As evidenced by the success of current 2South chef Supansa Banker the PPCC degree will open doors.

PPCC has also worked alongside the majority of high schools in Elbert, Teller and El Paso counties for decades now on the aforementioned Area Vocational Programs (also referred to as concurrent enrollment) which, like ProStart, offer college credit for classes often being taught on high school campuses. Specific to culinary training, schools bus students in five days a week for 21/2 hours of morning classes at PPCC's Centennial Campus. High schools pay for the AVP programs out of their regular budget, as allotted per pupil, according to PPCC concurrent enrollment coordinator Janet Nace. Though Manitou Springs students have been able to participate in this program, superintendent Longfield recalls only a handful doing so in recent years, calling it a great, though not well-attended resource.

When asked why, with AVP available, Manitou would wish to go it alone with its own culinary class offering, Nace says some schools prefer to have more control over their own programming. So long as the faculty proves competent and the education meets PPCC criteria, students could again earn college credit. Longfield presumes Manitou will connect with PPCC "as we build the program," and Matthews says he'll offer credit should students wish to attend Paragon (despite the potential for conflict of interest.)

Longfield says D-14 has opted to form its own program partly so that students won't have to leave campus and spend extra time and energy venturing across town. He feels they potentially miss out on a part the regular high school experience. But more so, adding culinary arts to the curriculum plays into a much larger district mission, called 2020 Vision.

"This is another iteration of us innovating and expanding what we offer here so children have lots of exposure to different things," he says. "We believe in the marketplace — people want folks who are creative team people and multi-dimensional."

To that end, the new culinary class piggybacks on expanded music programming, a tech program, and wide after-school FAIM (Fine Arts Institute @ Manitou) offerings, including dance and visual arts classes. "There's an epidemic of boring in some schools," says Longfield. "They're so worried about reading, writing and math, but they forget they have to have those other programs to engage kids. Here, I fear not being relevant."

But after eight years with D-14, he's seen positive feedback with the likes of D14's 1:1 iPad program, wherein every K-12 student receives one of the devices for collaborative projects and more. He says upwards of 100 other districts have visited to study its success. And the fact that roughly half the senior class tried to sign up for the new culinary offering "indicates we must be doing something right." That's reinforced by the fact that roughly a third of Manitou's student body choices-in from other school districts.

Colorado Springs School District 11 chef Nathan Dirnberger is encouraged by news of Manitou's fledgling program, saying "all of these students are the future of our industry, we're all just a big team."

Dirnberger also graduated from PPCC, and works closely with the CRA and ProStart, noting a recent grant at Wasson for an espresso machine to begin training barista skills. He recently took the seat of president of the American Culinary Federation Pikes Peak Chapter, and in that role says his mission is to build relationships and develop our culinary community and culture.

Dirnberger and D-11 already send their ProStart students off to regional and national competitions, but he envisions getting students involved as helpers with ACF events, such as this past Monday's Dueling Knives friendly throwdown at the Blue Star between AspenPointe's Brent Beavers and the Penrose Room at the Broadmoor's Zach Ladwig. "They're fun to watch live," he says, "but we compete to make each other better."

In a way, Dirnberger's not just trying to raise awareness, but an army. Taking a sustainability approach, he cites data that we'll need to be feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050. Though that's mainly talked about from the side of agriculture and resource challenges, he says there's also a cheffing aspect worth discussion. We're gonna need cooks. A lot of 'em. Preferably good.

"We need to expose students earlier to build their skills and build a culture and help drive those interested to culinary schools. Today's young generation doesn't have as many of the hard skills as people used to have," he says. "So exposure to that is great."

Perhaps someday, lofted by programs like District 14's, the notion of learning those knife skills alongside algebra will be as familiar as football practice and an assumed part of a well-rounded educational diet.

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