Dressed in the white chef’s coat and black and white checkered pants, Virginia, 16, carefully dips the ladle in the batter and drips it on to the griddle. In minutes the delicate crepe is ready to turn.
Across the state-of-the-art kitchen Desiree carefully measures the flour before dumping it into the full-size commercial mixer. Standing next to her, a student cuts her way through the mound of vegetables for a salad.
The high school students are participating in a Rio Salado College dual credit culinary program, learning the basics of food preparation including bakery skills and how to create a variety of sauces.
Earlier this month the students competed in Skills USA, a high school competition for students in career and technical education. The competition was a great learning experience for students. While the class resembles dozens of career and technical education programs across the state there are some important differences. Knives used in the production of the food are secured to the cutting board making it impossible to remove them from the kitchen. And although the students wear the standard chef’s uniform they are all stripped searched before being allowed to begin class.
Students in the program are part of the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections and are incarcerated at the Black Canyon School. The culinary arts program is designed to prepare juvenile offenders to enter the work force once they are released.
“It’s great. I love it,” said Virginia, who had never gone to high school before being committed to the Black Canyon School. Each day the students attend class from 8:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. By the time they finish the culinary program the girls will have earned 12 college credits and learned a skill. Desiree plans to get a job in a hotel restaurant once she is released. She knows her culinary certificate from Rio Salado will boost her chances of landing the job she wants.
“Before I came here I cooked everything in the microwave,” said Desiree.
The program does more than prepare students for entering the work force. It boosts self-confidence and reduces the rate of recidivism for offenders.
“We’ve seen it time and time again, evidence of the difference an education can make in the stories formerly incarcerated students tell us. They talk about the sense of accomplishment gained from successfully completing a class; and the confidence learning a skill gives them. Most importantly, that winning combination results in an increased probability of livable wage employment and the chance for a better life,” said Rio Salado College Dean Jo Jorgenson, who has been working with incarcerated students for 20 years.
“What our school is trying to do is make them lifelong learners. We want to motivate them to keep on learning,” said Brook Toney their instructor.
“Everything we do here is to prepare them for being successful once they are out,” said Toney.
Toney, a former chef finds working with incarcerated youth is a job she is passionate about.
“I love this class. I get instant satisfaction. It’s much more rewarding than working in a restaurant. You get to see these kids gain a skill they can use on the outside and that’s our main reason to be here, to fix it so they don’t come back,” said Toney. The program has a major impact on students.
“It’s a huge asset to have the culinary program at our school. We need more career and technical education programs. It’s been very motivating for our youth,” said Keryl Work, Black Canyon Superintendent.
"We are able to arrange employment opportunities and contacts for the students. We help to set them up with jobs and they're working so it increases their chances for success in the community. It's a protective factor,” said Work.
Rio Salado College has been offering educational opportunities to incarcerated students for 25 years. The college has more than 450 distance learning classes available.
For registration or more information call 480-517-8540 or go to www.riosalado.edu/registration