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When Chef Keith Morris hears Proviso East students talking about his culinary arts and nutrition program as “cooking classes,” he corrects them. “My classes are classes with cooking in them,” he says.

“We’re trying to transform the program,” he explained, “from home ec to more of an industry-based program, to make sure students have a chance to learn what is expected of them in the professional world.”

In an online article on the website, The Takeout, Gwen Ihnat wrote, “Those of us of a certain age may remember a time period when high-school girls took home economics class, and high-school boys took shop. … [The expectation was that] women would become homemakers and take care of their families.”

The world has changed. Many women enter the work force whether or not they get married and have children and many men now work in the hospitality industry. The percentage of boys in Morris’ culinary program is 65 percent, or 29 out of 65.

Morris pushes students who show interest in taking his introductory course, called Nutrition and Culinary Arts, that what they will be getting into is an “occupations” class.

“If you want to come into the class,” he tells them, “you have to have some intention of working in the hospitality industry or at least the desire to learn more about it. You may not be sold on the culinary arts as a career, but if your work ethic is where it should be, I will give you opportunities to go on field trips and work on catering projects.”

The kind of learning experience Morris provides in his culinary classes fits in with a new model of education recently implemented in D209. Called College and Career Academies, the new model divides the high school into three smaller academies within one school. The culinary program is located inside the Business and Human Services Academy at Proviso East.

The D209 website describes the model as “creating small learning communities within the high school,” which include “a family-like atmosphere, college preparation and real-world experience.”

Regarding the family-like atmosphere, Brittany Galindo, Christopher Sanchez, Gerardo Corral, Brittin Wheaton and Jonathan Gracia were among eight students who chose to spend their lunch period last week Thursday in the chef’s classroom instead of the school’s cafeteria.

All four talked about how their culinary classes have prepared them to get more schooling after graduation.

 Brittin Wheaton is a senior who has taken all three courses that Morris and his colleague Jennifer Miller offer and has the goal of becoming a bakery and pastry chef. “I plan,” she said, “on going to Triton College and taking culinary classes there for two years and then finishing at a four-year university.”

Christopher Sanchez, a senior who will graduate in June, plans to go on to some kind of higher education and then get into the hospitality industry. He admitted he wasn’t sure about the culinary class when he signed up for it but said, “Once I got into it, I enjoyed it.” 

Brittany Galindo is a senior who doesn’t know for sure what career path she wants to take in the future but said that what she has learned from Morris isn’t just cooking skills but lessons that can be transferred to anything she will do.

Morris said he reminds his students regularly that his class is an “occupations” class in which they learn about the importance of getting to work on time, teamwork on the job and how to present themselves — “skills and habits which are transferable to anywhere.”

One of the experiences Galindo recalled was a field trip Morris took them on to a downtown hotel where staff members described how to run an “industrial” kitchen, which fits in with the new D209 model of including “real-world experiences with local businesses and professionals.”

Another real world experience Morris felt good about involved eight of his students catering a D209 Together event last week. “The students got all kinds of praise for their work,” he said, “and guests wanted to talk to them. The people were impressed not only by the food but also by the way the students presented themselves in professional uniforms and carried themselves as professionals.

The focus in all three academies is not just on preparing students for college, but also on getting a career. Gracia, for example, plans on going to college after graduation next year but with a purpose. He wants to major in dietetics because his enjoyment of cooking has evolved into an interest in how what we eat affects the human body.

Another way the culinary program is different than the old home ec classes is that Morris is in the midst of a transformation of his classrooms themselves and the equipment in them. When the redo has been completed, Morris and Miller will have 1,400 square feet of space and an industrial, state-of-the-art kitchen, like the ones in restaurants and hotels, which will be equipped with the latest technology, including eight burner ranges, overhead mirrors, pull-down electrical outlets and double-stacked convection ovens.

One reason Morris is able to give his culinary students real-world experiences and insights is because, in addition to his training at Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute, he has experienced virtually every aspect of the hospitality industry from flipping burgers at Wendy’s to managing kitchens.

At present Morris has 65 students enrolled in the three courses he teaches, all of which are elective. A full load for teachers is five classes, and he is doing some marketing among the freshmen to increase the number of students who take at least the introductory course.