By Sarah Colson
A few years ago, Science Hill High School senior Haley Webster could not have cared less about graduating. In fact, she had little drive to accomplish anything because she didn’t believe she could.
Now, Webster is not only going to graduate from high school, but is the Science Hill Alternative Center’s kitchen manager and is cooking her way towards culinary arts school. Those changes are in large part thanks to a partnership between the alternative center and a grant from Build It Up East Tennessee to create a program where students can grow their own organic food, learn how to cook and learn how to run a small business.
“Haley had absolutely zero interest in being successful at anything because she didn’t think that was possible,” said Sherri Cooper, who’s in charge of the gardening program. “Now she’s like, ‘cooking school; you’ve got to get me into cooking school.’”
The market gardeners program was started after the school system received a grant from the HEROES (Helping Everyone Reach Optimum Excellence and Success) Initiative, which is a collaborative effort between Johnson City Schools, the Johnson City Police Department, Johnson Juvenile Court and Frontier Health.
Many of the kids, like Webster, now find post-secondary education of some sort attainable, an option some of them did not consider before stepping foot in the kitchen.
“(Cooper) has employed, through that program, 47 students at one point or another,” said Greg Wallace, superintendent of safety and mental health who also serves as the Johnson City district HEROES supervisor. “It’s teaching them valuable skills about networking and planning and just understanding how the process works. It really is a great program.”
The students, who sell their produce to restaurants like Main Street Pizza and Gourmet and Company in Johnson City, are expected to work hard in the kitchen, according to Cooper.
“It teaches them how to deal with stressful situations because it’s not easy to provide food. It’s not easy,” Cooper said. “It teaches them to work hard because working hard is not profitable necessarily in this particular endeavor, but it does help them realize that hard work is important. The other job I do here is make sure that they go to post-secondary education. You don’t have to go to college. You can still keep your day job, you know because usually by the time they leave here they’ve got a pretty steady job.”
When deciphering recipes, math is obviously a big factor. When the News & Neighbor visited the center’s kitchen last week, Jennifer Stout, Jasmine Shasteen and Tatiana Rhea were working hard to triple a recipe.
Cooper said, “That teaches them math and why it’s important.”
Along with using math to learn recipes, the program teaches the students to always put back 20 percent of their sales into the garden to account for keeping the garden self-sustainable. Food sales come from partnering with the Johnson City Farmer’s Market, the Boone Street Market in Jonesborough, and local restaurants. Some of the fresh food also goes to feeding kids at the alternative center.
The other 80 percent of sales? It goes to the students for their hard work, which is sometimes even done after they’ve graduated or met all of their requirements.
“Some of the students play sports,” Cooper explained. “Some of the students are in band or other extracurricular activities that cost a lot of money that they would have to drop out of otherwise.”
Cooper has had much to do with not only keeping the program sustainable, but with giving kids creative options to do well in school and other areas in their lives.
“Cooper’s one of those people that every school system needs,” Wallace said. “We once did a focus group of students and one of the comments was that ‘everybody needs a Cooper.’ Everybody needs somebody that connects to these students and understands them. They believe that she believes in them.
“We want to push every student to the highest level of their ability and that includes traditional and non-traditional ways of engaging kids to find success once they graduate from high school. There’s that purely academic side of that and then there’s also that very practical side of it, with tangible skill sets.”
Cooper expects more kids to leave the center ready for bigger kitchens to conquer. The gardening program has also joined forces with the UT Extension program, allowing the students to graduate with certifications in the culinary arts.
“They are set up to do better jobs in the food services, which is what most teenagers are going to end up doing,” Cooper said. “They can work in restaurants. They’re a little bit higher caliber. So those restaurants recognize that they know how to do that kind of stuff.”
Webster, and about 100 other students during the school year, are learning even more than culinary arts. Cooper, who started the initial gardening program back in 2004, said the kids are learning how to network, how to healthily deal with stressful situations and that they can accomplish more than anyone has given them credit for before.
“It teaches them they can set goals and meet them. A lot of kids at the alternative school have been told their whole lives that they can never meet a goal,” Cooper said. “Here they have to figure things out, use problem solving skills and they make it happen. They make the order and deliver the order. They feel a sense of accomplishment so they feel that they are worth something.”