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From Life Skills to Career Paths, The Evolution of Home Economics

This article featured on WUWM-FM (Milkwaukee) highlights how FACS prepares students for college and careers.

Think about the term “home economics.”

You might picture a class of high school girls back in the day, learning to make meatloaf so they could one day serve it to their families.

Home ec has always taught students practical skills. But today it’s taken on a different flavor, even different names.

For instance, just this month, MPS announced it would launch a new culinary program, this fall.

Like other modern-day courses, the focus today is on helping students land jobs. Classes toss other skills into the mix.

To learn what home economics used to be like, I called my great-aunt Ceil to ask about her high school classes.

"We had to take two years of sewing and then make our graduation dress. And we had to take two years of cooking, during which time we worked in the cafeteria," Ceil recounts.

Ceil is a graduate of Milwaukee's Girls Technical High School. The trade school doesn’t exist anymore, but in Ceil’s day, it taught young ladies to cook and sew – skills they’d need once they started a family.

"Basic home economics training," Ceil says. "It’s just the basics, just to know the measurements and things like that."

The cooks in Kayla Correll’s kitchen are well-versed in the basics, and then some. They wash, chop and stir with ease. Watching – and smelling – what they make, you would think you’d entered a professional kitchen. But it’s actually a classroom at Greendale High School.

Students move around the kitchen like pros. And they make food for actual events. Today, they’re catering an athletic banquet.

They act more like coworkers than classmates. Head chef and teacher Kayla Correll says that concept is intentional in today’s version of home ec.

"Family and consumer science is a study of all of the different facets that go into not only what it used to be, which was creating a good home, but now it’s more geared [toward], 'how do we prepare kids for the future?'" Correll explains.

The foods these days may also be a bit different – certainly flavors from Mexico and Asia crop up more often now than in the 1940's.

What’s more, Correll says teachers add in lessons about workforce skills.

"In our contemporary class, we focus a lot on the soft skills like teamwork, time management, critical thinking, and leadership roles," Correll lists.

The goal of modern education is to get students “college and career ready,” according to Greendale principal Steve Lodes. That’s why schools try to simulate workplace environments; they want students to see if they can handle real-world situations.

"It really kind of helps them narrow what they want to do once they walk out of our doors," Lodes says. "It takes it out of being 'a class that I take in high school,' to something that just adds a whole other level of preparation for students, should they decide to pursue a career in that field."

This modern skills instruction is perfect for students like Greendale senior Olivia Olander. She signed up for Ms. Correll’s class as a sophomore for fun. Turns out she likes being in the kitchen - so much, in fact, that she’s decided to pursue it as a career.

"I just really love cooking in general, it’s what I’m going to go school for," Olivia says. "I feel like being a personal chef for someone would be really cool."

Aspirations aside, Olivia says this is her favorite class. It gives her a chance to blow off steam and have some good, old-fashioned fun.

My great-aunt Ceil knows the feeling.

"Some of us just love to do it," she says.

Yet she also wishes more schools taught skills like cooking and sewing simply to give young people skills they may need in life.

"[My granddaughters] come to me and say, ‘Grandma, will you do this? Will you shorten this skirt for me?’ or something like that," Ceil says. "Because they don’t know the technique of it. And just to learn techniques, it did the world for me."

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