Students get a taste of a career
Des Moines East High School senior Mackenzie Sleeth never imagined she would find her passion when she was first accepted in the Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management Program at Des Moines Central Campus three years ago.
“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Mackenzie said. “But I found that I really like learning through hands-on experiences instead of being shown or told what to do. I found my passion in a field where I get to combine my creativity with business-related skills.”
Mackenzie is one of 17 Central Campus culinary arts students headed to Washington, D.C. this week to accept a national award from Advance CTE, the longest-standing national non-profit that represents state directors and leaders responsible for secondary, postsecondary and adult Career Technical Education (CTE) across all 50 states and U.S. territories.
The Central Campus Culinary Arts program was selected as a national winner because of its proven progression from secondary to postsecondary education, meaningful work-based learning opportunities through the operation of its student-run Campus Cafe, and its evidence-based impact on student achievement and success.
“Around 90 percent of students who persist in the program for at least two years pursue further education in the field or enter the industry after graduation,” said Chef John Andres, head of the Central Campus Program (or simply Chef John, as the students refer to him).
The program exemplifies the vision of all CTE programs, connecting core academics with experienced-based learning, demonstrating to students how classroom knowledge is relevant in the real world. Students leave the program both college- and career-ready, having learned core academic skills, employ-ability skills, job skills, industry certifications, and community college credits.
Pradeep Kotamraju, career and technical education (CTE) bureau chief for the Iowa Department of Education’s Division of Community Colleges, nominated the program for the award.
“Secondary CTE programs play a pivotal role in preparing students to succeed in postsecondary education and the workforce,” Kotamraju said. “The Des Moines Central Campus, with its strong connection to academics, alignment with industry standards, and meaningful, work-based experiences, is the model one thinks of when describing high-quality career and technical education. It is one of the premier models we have in mind as Iowa begins implementation of the recently passed legislation to update and restructure secondary career and technical education in the state.”
Central Campus Assistant Director Aiddy Phomvisay regularly hears from industry leaders and culinary institutes about the advantages Central Campus students have over other candidates because of their range of knowledge, proven technical skills, and mastery of soft skills.
“The real-world experience is second to none,” Phomvisay said. “Curriculum is aligned with industry standards. The students are here to learn and are engaged on a high level. They leave the program with quality experiences and skills needed to succeed after graduation.”
“It’s tough and a lot of hard work, but really fun, too,” second-year student Noah Notch said.
The program’s strong foundation helped Noah breeze through a sanitation test he had to take at his job working as a cook at Hy-Vee.
“They were impressed because I passed so easily, but it was information that I already learned at Central Campus,” Noah said.
Key components help make the program a success:
Unique Admissions Approach
Central campus takes a unique approach when selecting students for the program, which often has a waiting list of over 100 students.
“We look at how we can make a difference for students and help them on the path to succeed in middle- and high-skill jobs,” Phomvisay said. “Grade point average isn’t as important as students who show passion and are willing to show up and work hard every day.”
Business and Industry Partnerships
Partnerships with business and industry are huge to the program’s success, starting with Chef John, who brings a wealth of industry knowledge and connections to the program as the former executive chef and beverage director at the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel.
The program also incorporates field trips, chef mentors, demonstrations by local chefs, and encourages students to enter competitions sponsored by industry organizations like ProStart and career and technical student organizations such as Skills USA and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA).
“Student leadership is developed through these opportunities. Being involved in all three organizations is an incredible experience for students,” said Julie Rosin, former assistant director at Central Campus.
The student-run café is integral to learning all aspects of working in the hospitality industry. Students find that cooking techniques are just one part of a culinary arts career.
“You have to organize your head,” said senior Molly Reisman. “There is a lot to get right – timing, presentation, coordination with servers, deliveries, and satisfying customers.”
In addition, outside catering opportunities provide students with more work experiences and serve a dual purpose of helping to fund the program.
Connection to Academics
Aligned with curriculum at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), students who complete at least two years of culinary arts at Central Campus graduate with a full year of DMACC credit under their belts.
“When you take into account tuition, fees, knife sets and other supplies needed for culinary school, I estimate students save upwards of $5,000,” Chef John said.
Connection to Family
Students are encouraged to incorporate their background and heritage when planning menus for Central Café. A recent menu featured a classic posole recipe – a traditional Mexican stew – that had been in a student’s family for generations.
“We see such pride in families who come to the café and see their students in a professional role,” Phomvisay said. “I regularly hear from parents how they have seen their children blossom from being part of the program.”
Student: Molly Reisman, senior from Lincoln High School, Des Moines
Program Year: 2
After-school Job: Line cook at Hy-Vee Market Grille
Accomplishments/Awards: Gold at state and silver at nationals through FCCLA competitions. Gold at state and attending nationals this summer through Skills USA.
Future Plans/Goals: Accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
“There are always differences between class and the real world, but this program has given me the foundation and confidence to succeed.”
Student: Mackenzie Sleeth, senior from East High School, Des Moines
Program Year: 3
After-school Job: Hostess, soon to be line cook, at Exile Brewery
Accomplishments/Awards: State vice president of Skills USA. Silver at state in commercial baking through Skills USA.
Future Plans/Goals: Accepted in the culinary arts program at DMACC and will start three days before her high school graduation. Hopes to work on a cruise ship.
“I was very uncomfortable talking in front of people, but the program helped me overcome my fear. Now I give speeches as vice president of Skills USA.”
Student: Noah Notch, junior from Lincoln High School, Des Moines
Program Year: 2
After-school Job: Line cook at Hy-Vee
Future Plans/Goals: Plans to attend DMACC after high school graduation and possibly the Culinary Institute of America.
“I have wanted to be a cook all my life, but this program has shown me that there are many different career paths in this field beyond that of a chef.”
Student: Damir Young, sophomore from Hoover High School, Des Moines
Program Year: 1
Future Plans/Goals: Plans to continue in the program and attend DMACC after graduation.
“I’ve learned that it takes a team and you all have to work together. I am definitely doing all three years – I am going to the top!”