Family and consumer sciences prepare students for life after high school

Last modified: 7/9/2013 10:23:06 AM
Students in Kay Shoubash’s foods and nutrition class at Windham High School were skeptical as they ground up zucchini in food processors for zucchini applesauce muffins.

But add a sprinkling of cinnamon, a scoop of applesauce and, 30 minutes later, their taste buds were pleasantly surprised.

“It’s actually pretty good,” said senior Kenny Hite. “I thought it was going to be gross – like, disgusting.”

This is all part of Shoubash’s plan to show students how to bring healthy options to their diet with easy recipes. In fact, that nutrition-based approach defines most high school cooking and food courses today. No longer are family and consumer sciences courses simply the “stitch and stir” courses that were once known as “home ec,”

Shoubash said. Instead, the focus has expanded to promote healthy lifestyles and give students real-world skills across a number of subjects, from nutrition to child development to fashion design.

But these courses now face the risk of elimination. The New Hampshire Department of Education is in the process of revamping its minimum standards requirements, which define what course districts must offer and students must take. As of now, every high school is required to offer at least three credits’ worth of family and consumer sciences courses, although students are not required to take any to graduate. But a steering committee has recommended eliminating that requirement, leaving teachers to worry that their courses will be the first to go when budgets get tight.

Nothing is set in stone, and the state Board of Education will hold two public hearings on the new standards in late summer and early fall. In the meantime, family and consumer sciences teachers are making the case that their courses are essential for students’ success.

Academics in real life

For their final projects, students in Michelle Grau’s Foods 2 class at Pembroke Academy must create three- to five-course meals, including a bread and something from every food group. But their grade depends on far more than concocting tasty dishes.

They must prepare a grocery list within a set budget, convert recipes to fit the size of the group, create both a nutritious and aesthetically pleasing meal and follow food safety standards. Taken together, these requirements encompass math, science, time management and reading comprehension.

“We’re helping kids who typically might not like math,” Grau said. “Now they are using it.”

Beyond applying academic skills in practical ways, the students gain valuable skills for living on their own, chief among them cooking healthy meals.

“If you’re in charge of cooking, you’re not going to eat the overly processed, chemical-laden crap,” Grau said.

That focus on nutrition is a much larger component of these courses than it was 15 years ago, said Joan Fossum, a teacher at Pittsfield Middle/High School and former consultant on family and consumer sciences to the New Hampshire Department of Education. Back then, students may have simply learned the ways to cook an egg. Now, they learn about the nutritional value in an egg and how that changes based on how it’s cooked.

“You’ll see cooking, but there’s also more time spent on the underlying science of that nutrition,” she said.

Senior Sasha Boyce said after taking food classes with Grau at Pembroke, she and friends now cook meals together rather than going out for dinner. Boyce will be attending New England Culinary Institute in the fall.

“It’s a very important class, and it makes me upset they want to get rid of it,” she said.

Beyond food courses, these classes include fashion and interior design, independent living, child development and many others.

Rena DeAngelis, a senior at Pembroke, takes the course on independent living. There, students spent time talking about credit, learning how to balance a checkbook and managing their personal finances – “a lot of stuff seniors should know,” she said.

This ability to bring academics to life is a strong argument for the necessity of these programs, advocates say.

“I’ve always felt that family and consumer sciences was the most important subject in the school,” said Jane Smith, president of the New Hampshire Association for Family and Consumer Sciences. “We’re teaching the same competencies as literacy and math, but we teach it hands-on so that it enables students to understand it better.”

Career ready

Decades ago, “home ec” courses were designed to prepare students for lives at home taking care of families. Today, these courses still provide that opportunity, while also preparing students for careers.

Fossum, the Pittsfield teacher, also teaches a child development course. Her students learn lessons to apply in their own homes but can also explore careers in teaching or child care. One of her senior students will be working at a preschool next year, and other students may go on to be pediatric nurses or into other child care fields, Fossum said.

“Many of my students are going into education because of child development, so we are related to a number of careers,” she said.

Jan Robbins teaches interior and fashion design, which fall under the umbrella of family and consumer sciences, at Windham High School. In these courses, students learn how to draw, modify clothing patterns and apply design elements. For students possibly interested in a career in one of these fields, a high school course provides an ideal introduction to the material.

“It carries those dreams that they had when they were little through to a point where they can actually visualize and see that they could actually make a living doing something that they love,” she said.

Foods and nutrition courses can set students on a path toward culinary school, dietetics or even a career in hospitality or tourism.

Shelby Rieo, a senior at Pembroke Academy, was planning on attending a four-year college until she took Foods 1 last semester to fill a credit. She enjoyed the class so much that her plans changed.

“I’m actually going to culinary school now because of this class,” she said.

Possible cuts

If the state Board of Education does cut the family and consumer sciences requirement, whether the courses survive at a given school may depend on their enrollment and when the courses are offered, among other things.

Now some districts offer the minimum of three courses that state standards require. If those towns face tight budgets, nonrequired family and consumer sciences courses, especially those with low enrollments, could be the first to go.

The steering committee spent considerable time debating the necessity of requiring all high schools to offer these courses, said Dan Clary, a committee member and principal at Belmont High School. Family and consumer sciences courses vary greatly from district to district, depending on the resources of the district. Some districts still offer very traditional cooking and sewing classes, while others, like Windham, have a variety of options for students.

“Since funds are becoming so scarce for all the school districts, it (is) very difficult to mandate some of these courses for smaller school districts, and the committee heard that loud and clear,” Clary said.

The new standards may also require students to take a math course all four years, and one justification is that in order to add more requirements, something must be taken away.

“It’s not arguing against the value of those courses for some kids, just raising concerns about the necessity of requiring they be offered in every school,” said David Ruff, executive director of the Great Schools Partnership and a consultant to the steering committee. “Everybody wants flexibility to be able to personalize learning, and the idea is we can’t offer everything all the time and still offer flexibility.”

But fewer students today are learning cooking and other skills in the home, Shoubash said, and teaching kids how to live healthy lifestyles now could prevent issues such as obesity. Now, advocates say, is a more crucial time than ever to offer these courses.

“We have to do something proactive,” Shoubash said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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