MODESTO -- State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Torlakson got a taste of Modesto on Friday, nibbling blueberry muffins made by culinary arts students at Johansen High before launching into the meat of his message: bringing home the bacon.
Career-focused courses offer more than job skills, Torlakson said. They infuse college-prep academics with workplace relevancy and layer in a sense of community.
The state superintendent visited an aromatic classroom in which kids crimped apple pie crusts and still-warm muffins tempted from a back table. Regional Occupational Program teacher Connie Van Winkle said her 180 students get hands-on skills. A handful get coveted internships at the Village Bakery no dough, just class credit.
Johansen senior and ex-intern Alexandra Parker said she hopes to go next to Columbia College's culinary arts program. "I love to cook. I'm kinda the Betty Crocker of the family," Parker said.
At a Johansen human development class, Torlakson watched paired students use verbal clues to explain drawing a simple flower posted out of sight. Judging from one that looked like a cat and another a pig, the communication exercise made its point.
"Their generation is not always good with one-to- one communication. Because of the texting, they don't have the eye contact, handshakes," teacher Rachelle Barkus said. Such basic workplace skills are part of her curriculum, which includes Friday stints working in Modesto City Schools preschool and elementary classrooms.
There, teachers mark if teens arrive on time, dress appropriately, work well with youngsters and show initiative a preview of what students can expect in job performance reviews someday.
Unlike single ROP courses, Human Development Academy students stick together for much of their day, studying English and history courses tied to academy themes. Barkus, whose mother founded the academy at Johansen, said she feels she is carrying on a legacy.
"I can touch kids and make a difference in their lives. What I'm doing has purpose," she said.
Torlakson said such courses make school relevant for teens and valuable for employers. "A strong economy depends on having good schools," he said, telling students and community members the state needs to better fund education.
Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O'Brien praised career-centered courses, noting that his family's three grocery stores have openings they are trying to fill, including two for cooks. "Businesses are looking for good employees, and this is what these programs are doing," he said.
Career classes give students choices and opportunities, said Modesto Teachers Association President Doug Burton. "Having purpose creates focus," he said.
The same is true for students served by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, said Scott Kuykendall, director of career, charter and alternative education for the county office.
A day before Torlakson's visit to the area, Kuykendall spoke Thursday at the grand opening of the Stanislaus Culinary Arts Institute in Oakdale, a new facility used by county office high school students two-thirds of the day, and Oakdale High and Waterford High students for one-third.
Columbia College classes are being offered as well, a boon for county office student Gusty Souza, 17, who hopes to get his food license to help pay for college chef's courses. "I'm thinking once I graduate, I might as well come back here. Now it's set in my head," Gusty said.
Jonathan Sandoval, 16, just wants to be a mechanic, but he likes the hands-on cooking classes and related academic courses. "I like eating the stuff," he said.
Career-themed education be it ROP, FFA ag courses, academies or a half-dozen other names are what Cindy Marks calls "linked learning."
Marks, a Modesto City Schools board member and incoming president of the California School Boards Association, said kids in such courses have better attendance, higher graduation rates, and on average make more money after graduation.
"They connect academics to real-world applications," Marks said. " These are the successes."
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339.