By Christina Autry

“Most days I wear a full chef outfit. Many of my kids are excited to come to school every day just because they know they’ll be cooking,” says Juliet Peterson, Culinary Arts and Hospitality and Tourism teacher at Spring Woods Middle School. Peterson has dedicated the past ten years to opening up opportunities for middle schoolers with an interest in food preparation.

Spring Woods’ kitchens resemble commercial kitchens after Peterson’s implementation of three-step sanitation, and stainless-steel workspaces among other renovations. With the use of these facilities, Peterson teaches students “reading, math, team-work, time management, safety, sanitation,” as they create an edible product by the end of their 50-minute period.

A decade ago, middle schoolers were not learning to slice and dice, puree or sauté in a professional manner during school hours. Rather, they were taught the broader array of topics covered in Home Economics. But by the time Peterson completed her student teaching internship at Spring Woods, the school was ready to make the shift from Home Ec to a focus on job skills suited for the hospitality industry – they just needed a teacher.

A motivated self-starter, Peterson eagerly accepted the job when it was offered. “I became the first teacher in the district to teach Principles of Hospitality and Tourism, a high school level class for eighth graders,” she says. “As a brand-new program, there was no textbook or curriculum. I was given a budget, and a large classroom with five kitchens. My family and I spent two weeks cleaning and prepping the room before school started.”

This middle school class became a huge hit. “It was so successful, the following year, 8th grade students were able to receive high school credit for the class,” says Peterson. Students who take Hospitality and Tourism in eighth grade are eligible to participate in the high school Culinary Arts Program at Spring Branch ISD’s Guthrie Center. Students who progress into the Culinary Arts program, or any of the Career & Technical Education programs offered spend a portion of their school day at the Guthrie Center.

This career-prep center houses state-of-the-art commercial kitchens and labs which “surpass most culinary schools in Texas,” as touted on the Guthrie website. Students graduate from their Culinary program with a ServSafe Food Handler Certification and a ServSafe Food Manager Certification. Highlights of the curriculum include taking charge of the campus café, and partnering with chefs from the Art Institute of Houston.

Peterson has built a strong relationship with the Guthrie Center, in order to best prepare her middle schoolers for the demands of the advanced program. A total of four Spring Branch ISD middle schools have added culinary-focused classes to their campus course offerings, and these trailblazing teachers have formed a professional learning community to collaborate and build the program.

As a pioneer in the implementation of this program, Peterson has pieced together and developed her own curriculum, tailored to the needs of each particular class of students. She draws upon the “Common Threads” nutrition and health program, combined with her own selection of recipes that she knows her students will benefit from. Peterson purchases food in bulk, stocking her fridges and freezers with a buffet of lessons.

Academic and job skills are embedded into every aspect of the class, from reading recipes and following directions, to understanding units of measure, chopping techniques, and learning successes and failures. “If you want to become a chef or restaurant-owner, you have to know these things,” says Peterson. “The skills they learn in my class also apply to being successful at practically any other job,” she adds.

Instead of performing cooking demonstrations for students to replicate, Peterson finds that it is more valuable for the students to figure out how to tackle their daily recipe with their groups.  “It’s much like a real job,” says Peterson. “They don’t get to choose their groups. They have to come to class prepared, or they won’t finish in time. They have to prep their own ingredients, and clean up after themselves.”

“Some kids who haven’t found success in English or Math classes find that they have a real talent for cooking,” says Peterson. “Succeeding in my class can be a huge confidence booster for them.” The students’ passion for culinary arts allows elements of core subjects to be taught in a mode that is highly appealing.

Building the confidence of middle school students by giving them tools for achievement was Peterson’s primary motivation for becoming a teacher. “As a stay-at-home mom years ago, I remember watching the news coverage of the Columbine tragedy. I heard that the kids responsible had been bullied,” says Peterson. “At that moment, I felt a calling to help prevent something like that from happening in the future.”

Once the time was right for Peterson to pursue her teaching certification, she knew that she only wanted to work in her home district, Spring Branch ISD – and the rest is history. “I love middle school,” she says. “There is such an opportunity for growth at this age. As students get older, the achievement gap can become wider, making it harder for students to rebound,” explains Peterson.

Peterson believes that Career and Technical Education classes such as the Culinary Arts program are a necessary and effective way to combat high school drop-out rates, and prepare students for a wide range of jobs. Spring Branch ISD is in the process of expanding and strengthening their CTE course offerings to provide a greater range of career classes which culminate in technical certificates.

“The CTE program is in a transition phase, and is about to become bigger and better, thanks to a variety of funding sources, and the Board of Trustees,” says Peterson. Individuals such as Peterson, community owners, business owners, and other district members on the CTE taskforce are figuring out what programs are most needed by the community and sought-after by students. “We already have a phenomenal program, and its going to be an even better avenue of preparing students for 21st century jobs,” says Peterson.