From cooking dinner to changing tires, students learn real-life skills

Instructor Jesse Perethian (right) helps senior Erica Ramirez (center) check engine oil during the second annual Senior Adulting Day at Lumpkin County High School in Dahlonega on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.

Students at Lumpkin County High School take the SAT, the ACT and all the other usual tests before graduation, but Principal Billy Kirk decided they needed to know more than academics.

So on Friday most of the senior class spent the day learning about everything from how to deal with mystery smells in the bathroom sink to the proper way to mince garlic for a Tuscan chicken dish.

They call it “Adulting Day,” a new rite of passage for a generation that reportedly lacks the daily life skills that earlier generations learned at home.

Montana Esters, one of the seniors, is a handy girl who may contradict that storyline, but even she realizes there are gaps in her knowledge. She can handle drywall after helping her brother fix up the basement; she can deal with the family car’s oil now that she’s in charge of checking the level after her mom accidentally filled it with transmission fluid; and she can unclog a toilet since her dad’s a plumber.

Instructor Jeff Bearinger (foreground) demonstrates how to plunge a toilet during the second annual Senior Adulting Day at Lumpkin County High School in Dahlonega on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.

But she learned a few new things, like how to use plumber’s putty to seal a sink fixture (it’s like adult Play-Doh, she exclaimed), how to spot dry rot on a car’s serpentine belt and, her eyes widening when she shared this one, how to eject food lodged in a choking baby’s throat.

“I feel like some of this stuff your parents should have taught you,” she said.

That is exactly what Kirk thought a little over a year ago when he came across a headline about a Kentucky school that had implemented a similar day of life skills. It was during Christmas break, but he was so excited that he texted an assistant principal right away. "We need to do this," he remembers writing.

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It seemed to fit nicely with the school’s existing program to equip students with so-called “soft skills,” an industry term to describe workplace habits that today’s young people supposedly lack.

Then-Gov. Nathan Deal once referred to them in a speech to DeKalb County graduates in 2013. Talking in a Georgia World Congress Center ballroom packed with family members, he exhorted seniors departing Ronald E. McNair High School to "learn to set your own alarm clock." Two years before that, Georgia had passed a law to establish high school certificates in "soft skills," "which may include, but not be limited to, skills relating to punctuality, ability to learn, and ability to work in a team."

Seniors Natalie Robinson (left) and Evelyn Dornhecker (right) practice changing a tire during the second annual Senior Adulting Day at Lumpkin County High School in Dahlonega on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.

They are skills that major Georgia employers, such as Coca-Cola, have been requesting for years: employees who can handle the job while also interacting with colleagues and customers.

Lumpkin High is in a charter school district, and the charter is based on prepping students for the workplace and independence. Before these home tutorials, the school implemented a capstone project in which students consider careers, learn about pay and discover whether their chosen field will afford them a new or a used car.

“Our charter is specifically about soft skills and employability skills,” said Jason Lemley, the assistant principal on the receiving end of the principal’s Christmas text. He led the creation of an adulting day program, which, in this, the second year, was centered around five work stations scattered through the school: clothing care, home maintenance, cooking, automobile care and first aid.

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In a noisy room with a gray concrete floor, students huddled around several vehicles, learning how to safely jack up a chassis to change a tire and how to jump-start a battery without starting a fire.

“Don’t buy the $6 jumper cables. Buy the $20 or $30 cables,” advised Jesse Perethian, who attended Lumpkin High and now drives a bus for the system. He described how a woman he knows bought a new car and never checked the fluids. Two years later, she had to spend $5,000 on a new engine.

He showed Bailee Norrell how to use her smartphone light to check the brake fluid level on a red Ford Explorer.

She liked the car stuff well enough, but thought the cooking demonstration in another part of the school was “so cool.”

That session was led by the school’s lead disciplinarian, Assistant Principal Whittney McPherson. A former chef, she taught culinary arts for a while and said it was fun to be back at it, if only for a day.

Before she set students loose on the cooking stations, she lectured them about the dangers of sharp knives and hot oil.

Assistant Principal Whittney McPherson (second from left) demonstrates cooking skills during the second annual Senior Adulting Day at Lumpkin County High School in Dahlonega on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020.

The teenagers minced their own garlic, chopped spinach and sun-dried tomatoes, pounded chicken then sizzled it all in a pan.

“Oh, that’s good,” said Esters, who had already rotated from home maintenance through clothing care. She’d been looking forward to the Tuscan chicken lesson all day. It was more fun than learning about laundry, she said.

Her cooking partner, Cody Gaddis, already knew his way around a kitchen. His mother works late, and his father has a disability that prevents him from cooking.

These are good life skills, he said, and not all teens have them.

“That’s the problem with this generation. They don’t know how to do a lot of things because it’s done for them,” he said. Some of his friends are handy, he added. “Others, bless their heart, you can tell they just wouldn’t know.”

Senior Montana Esters reacts as instructor Jeff Bearinger (foreground) instructs during the second annual Senior Adulting Day at Lumpkin County High School in Dahlonega on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Esters already had a head start on several life skills, but she learned a few new things.

Lumpkin Superintendent Rob Brown wholeheartedly backs the adulting concept, saying he realized that his own son lacked some basic survival skills, like how to change a tire. “It was a realization that I failed him in some way,” Brown said, as he watched the students cook. His son attended the first adulting day last year, and picked up a few skills. On a recent call home from a college, an alarm went off on his son’s side of the call. It was a timer for the clothes dryer.

He told his dad he had to go: He had to retrieve his clothes before they wrinkled.