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Home Economics evolves to teach foodie tricks alongside basics

Home Economics, as it has been known, is shifting to keep up with foodie and maker movement trends and their influence on teens today. Once the way to teach kitchen basics, it has evolved to teach more nuanced skills in food and beyond.

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Students may not come to Donna Barnett’s consumer science classes to get more of what they’ve seen on TV and YouTube. They’re not necessarily looking to serve up the “Weirdest Food You Ever Ate,” for instance, or to learn “How to Cook Road Kill.” And they may not want to become another Alon Shaya, renowned New Orleans’ Domenica chef and one of Ms. Barnett’s former students. But students at Harriton High School, part of Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia, line up for her classes nonetheless.  Some are driven by their romanticism of the foodie culture, some by the down economy. 

Here, as in many high schools, “home economics” has evolved. Cooking has gone from a lesson in making the supermarket “special of the week” feed the greatest number of young ‘uns as many tolerable meals as possible, to a lesson in feeding oneself well. That’s because, often, no one else is home for dinner in this wealthy school district, explains Ms. Barnett, who has taught there for 25 years. Personal finance class has changed too. Once a lesson in how to balance a checkbook, it’s now peopled by students who “all want to get rich on Wall Street,” she says. And child development, once the incubator of would-be mommies, now is populated by future doctors, nurses, and teachers. 

Home Economics and its wood shop counterpart have traditionally been electives at Harriton. And if they historically appealed mainly to a non-academic crowd, they’ve now gone mainstream. Students who might have been considered too “smart” to learn nutrition and were steered to, well, calculus, are now hedging their career bets. One former student, now at an Ivy league university, told the teacher “I wanted to learn to bake in case I can’t get a job as an engineer.”

The public schools aren’t the only ones seeing interest in cooking, fashion design, home finance, and such. The Wall Street Journal described a trend recently toward haute curriculum in private academies and schools, where ambitious is normally associated with academic. Elsewhere, schools whose students might seem most likely to use the skills on the job are often either too poor to offer them or too focused on academic skills to want the distraction. 

Ann Pagano, Director of Development at the Freire Charter School, in Philadelphia, which serves many underprivileged students, says, “our focus is academic rigor.” Students arrive lagging in math and reading and need to double up in those areas in order to prepare for college. In some schools where money or class time is in short supply, extracurricular clubs can fill in some of the gaps. 

Whether paying high private school tuition or high school tax bills, parents might be expected to prefer something more for their money than lessons in changing diapers in a day care or busing tables at an in-school restaurant. Not so, says Ivy Cohn, whose son Ross, a senior at Harriton, and daughter Alyssa, a freshman, both took Barnett’s "Basic Foods and Nutrition" class. Ms. Cohn has been delighted with the results – the fact that her once-picky-eater son has developed an expanding palate, and that her daughter has become more helpful and adept in the kitchen. 

“Before I really knew what the course was about, I asked my son, ‘Why are you taking this course?’” She soon saw it as a happy, useful change of pace from the stress of the classroom. Besides, she says, “Everyone needs to eat. They have to learn these things.”

Practical might yet prove to be a career maker in a culture where recession and unemployment has shredded the expectations of many who thought college would be their ticket. At Harriton, even those cooking students who are not particularly interested in food come for the management and entrepreneurial skills they gain by working and competing for jobs in the functioning restaurant they run as part of the international foods class. 

Barnett says many parents in the wealthy school district have taken big financial hits during the recent recession, and shifted their kids out of the numerous private schools in the area into the public schools like Harriton. Without the family ship coming in as they’d planned, they seem eager, she said, for their kids to learn how to survive on their own, be aware of college costs and think career. 

Their thinking dovetails with the still-emerging maker movement/self-sufficiency mindset, which has increasing numbers of millennials growing their own foods, making their own crafts, and starting their own factories and restaurants. The recession, combined with the depersonalization experienced in some stalwart academic-corporate-professional institutions that once welcomed their parents’ generation now combine to make the independent lifestyle seem less risky for today’s young adults.

And If nothing else, the traditional arts of the home can still be used there – at home. Anna O’Hora, whose daughter studied wood shop in the district decades ago, is still reaping the benefits. Her daughter, she explains, learned her way around a house and hasn’t forgotten. 

“She fixes things a lot.”

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