Return to Headlines

East’s Culinary Arts Program is a Successful CTE Staple

For those passionate about the opportunity-filled food service/restaurant/hospitality field, no Career and Technical Education program is more vital than the successful Culinary Arts (ProStart/Catering) offering at East High School.

Overseen by veteran educator Jenae Passalaqua, East’s Culinary Arts program has helped jump-start the careers of numerous Eagles who enter the workforce directly out of high school, while simultaneously preparing those planning to pursue a post-secondary credential. East's Culinary Teacher talks with D60 about the Culinary program she leads at the school.

“To me, Career and Technical Education is about preparing students for the real world,” Ms. Passalaqua said. “If our students want to leave high school and get a job at a restaurant, our programs at East allow them to do that. 

“And if not, they can move on to a two-year degree, like at Pueblo Community College. And once they finish there, they can pursue four-year studies in hospitality and tourism.”

The program’s entry-level course, “On Your Own,” is designed to give students a solid foundation for life itself.

“In that course, I teach about relationships and communication skills, before moving on to life management: choosing the right college, opening credit cards and getting loans, the difference between renting and buying, serving the community and citizenship,” Ms. Passalaqua said.

“The second level course is Catering, which is taught over two semesters. Here, students get a foundation of cooking – through both dry and moist heat methods – equipment, food safety, and international foods before we move on to baking, business skills, and preparing and planning for a catered event.

“This gives kids a good idea of what hospitality and tourism entails, and offers a look at the different careers involved. Do you want to be a caterer? Do you want to be a wedding or event planner? Do you want to work in food service at a hospital? Do want to be a chef at a restaurant or even work in fast food?”

A foundation of East’s Culinary Arts offering is ProStart, a nationwide, two-year program that unites the foodservice industry and the classroom to teach students culinary skills and restaurant management principles, as well as employability skills such as communication, teamwork, professionalism and time management.

ProStart students are eligible to earn the National ProStart Certificate of Achievement, which affords access to national and statewide articulation agreements and scholarship opportunities, as well as other certifications.

To add a deeper layer of real-world depth to the curriculum, Ms. Passalaqua established a fully operational commercial restaurant within East High School.

Located in a space adjacent to the school’s large industrial kitchen, the Golden Feather sees Culinary Arts entrusted with all aspects of the operation, from generating a menu to selecting the ideal music for the dining atmosphere. 

“When I took over the entire program three years ago, the kids needed a place to practice their skills,” Ms. Passalaqua said. “And so I turned the room next to the kitchen into a restaurant.”

The Golden Feather allows students to acquire real-time front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house expertise.

“In the front of the house, students host and wait on tables,” Ms. Passalaqua explained. “In the back, we have students cooking, prepping, and washing dishes: the whole gamut that gives them the full experience of being part of a restaurant scene, and what it feels like to be part of that environment.”

As a trend of Career and Technical Education is having students apply their training and instruction in a real-world setting, “The restaurant is a perfect way to do that,” Ms. Passalaqua said. “It is the best situation to have kids apply skills learned in the classroom to the real world.”

The restaurant operation allows students to fill a variety of roles, from the “top” on down: experience that will serve them well in the working world.

“With me acting as the owner, one student will serve as manager for the month,” Ms. Passalaqua said. “So if there is an issue, that student will have to go out and deal with that issue. And if they can’t get it resolved, they have to come and get me.

“So there are different levels of who they report to, just like as if they were working in the industry.”

The experience gained through the Golden Feather, like the credentials afforded through ProStart, has proven very beneficial to students entering the food service/hospitality workforce.

“Students receive the safe food handler certification, and I do have students who go on to get the manager’s certification as well,” Ms. Passalaqua explained. “And with that safe food handler certificate, they can walk into a position and immediately make more than the person who doesn’t have it.”

Through a partnership with Pueblo Community College, Culinary Arts students can earn up to 12 hours of concurrent college credit, giving Eagles a step up when moving on to the college level.

Ms. Passalaqua said that many of her Culinary Arts graduates have gone on to work in the industry, with others electing to continue on to college or military service.

“A lot head right on to PCC,” she said. “I probably send 5 to 10 students to the program every year. PCC loves getting our students, because they are ready to go. 

“And some may go on to get a four-year business degree at Colorado State University Pueblo, and apply that degree in hospitality. So it’s a very nice pathway for students to go to PCC and CSU Pueblo, if that’s what they choose.”

The outlook for food service, and hospitality and tourism, is fruitful and bright, making CTE programs like East’s Culinary Arts an essential asset for an essential field.

“It’s not going away,” Ms. Passalaqua said of the industry. “Those jobs are not getting replaced.”

As an educator, Ms. Passalaqua said the most rewarding aspect is seeing her students experience success doing something they love.

“I always tell kids, ‘Do what you love and love what you do. It’s important not to get put into something you don’t love, so try to pick something that’s your passion, and turn it into your career. That way, you’ll be a much happier person.’

“I love seeing kids happy and become successful citizens of Pueblo.”

Through the years, the Culinary Arts program has shown to be a literal life-changer for those students struggling to find their path.

One Eagle, whose reputation was one of a troublemaker and problem student, blossomed after enrolling in Ms. Passalaqua’s program.

“I heard all these things about him,” Ms. Passalaqua said. “But here, he found his niche: this is where he belongs. He likes the hands-on work: the building, the creating, the designing.

“And that’s why I want every single kid in this school to know about this program. You can have a student who is beat down every single day and he or she can come in this class and feel very successful and very proud about what they’re doing.”

Regardless of a student’s ultimate career destination, the ability to prepare a variety of delicious meals is a skill that will serve them well for a lifetime.

“I love that they can fix food for themselves,” Ms. Passalaqua said. “They know not only how to prepare a meal, but a really nice meal for themselves, or guests in their home.

“It’s very interesting to me to see how many kids love to do this.”

East’s Culinary Arts program, Ms. Passalaqua said, is open to students from all D60 high schools.

“That’s one thing a lot of people don’t know,” she said. “When I first started this program, I had kids from other schools coming in to learn culinary skills. So students from any of our high schools are welcome here.”