Students in Fayette County’s Center of Innovation culinary program recently catered an event for 105 people at the Georgia Archives. Credit: Fayette County School System.

Making the Grade: Fayette center prepares students for work world

Leylah Brown, 16, has always liked to cook. “I love making any type of dish, really,” said the Fayette County High school student. So when friends told her about culinary classes they were taking at the school district’s Center of Innovation, she was intrigued.

“They really enjoyed it, and it made me think I should give it a try,” said Brown. “I also liked that I can get college credit while I’m doing it.”

Brown is now developing cooking skills and hoping to earn an edge on her college work through a program that offers introductory culinary courses in students’ home high schools, then allows them to move to more intensive sessions at the Center of Innovation in Fayetteville. There, they sharpen their practical skills in a commercial kitchen and work on earning a certificate from Southern Crescent Technical College that qualifies them to work as prep cooks.

The program, which debuted last year, grew out of research district officials conducted to determine how to link student preparedness with the needs of the workforce.

“About three and a half years ago, we did a survey of students about their career interests and combined their responses with state and national Department of Labor information to choose a couple of career paths that were in high demand in our state and nationally,” said Lisa Collins, director of career and technical education for Fayette County schools. “The two that came to the top were health care sciences and culinary arts. So we opened our Center of Innovation and partnered with local businesses, industries and the technical college to create these programs. Our students receive high school credit, technical college credit and the opportunity to earn industry-recognized credentials. And students can do all of this for free.”

The burgeoning film industry in the metro area, and Fayette County in particular, has fueled the demand for culinary talent, said Collins. “In our area, Pinewood Studios had had a huge economic impact. They’re now building a hotel across from the studio for people who come to Pinewood, so there will be a need for people to work in the culinary arts. This program puts us at the forefront of aligning education with workforce development. We want to be sure our young people have a competitive edge that’s more than a high school diploma.”

Southern Crescent adjunct Chef Margaret June leads the classes that begin with basic culinary math, sanitation standards and cooking methods. “In the second class, we apply that knowledge in a practical way. For instance, they learn how to take a recipe that serves six people and transpose that for 24 or 60 people, something you’d cater or serve in a restaurant.”

Sixteen-year-old Albert House said the classes have introduced him to ideas he’d never considered before. “For instance, it’s surprising how much work goes into keeping foods fresh. It’s crazy learning how much care it takes to run a restaurant. But I’m having fun.”

Students have already put their skills to the test in real-world settings. In September, they cooked for a parents’ event, and a few weeks ago, they catered a reception at the Georgia Archives.

“That was our first off-site catering event and involved an extensive menu,” said June. “We served heavy hors d’oeuvres for 105 people. The students did everything from start to finish – prepared food, transported it, set up, served and cleaned up. It’s one thing to learn in the classroom, and it’s another to work with the public where they have to put their lessons into action.”

The catering opportunity gave students another thing they rarely get in the classroom, said June. “At the end, we were given a standing ovation. And that’s a memory they can always look back on.”

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