ProStart guides students to culinary careers

With the development of 14 career pathways, the Delaware Department of Education aims to guide students who aren’t necessarily headed to a four-year college into rewarding careers that meet the state’s economic needs.

The culinary arts and hospitality program known as ProStart, a collaboration with the Delaware Restaurant Association, is the most robust of these pathways. Now completing its sixth year, ProStart is training about 3,000 students in 18 high schools.

“It’s better because it’s industry-driven, industry-developed, industry-organized and industry-supported,” says Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association.

The three-year curriculum begins in 10th grade and covers all aspects of culinary arts and hospitality management, says Ralph Freeman, a teacher at St. Georges Technical High School. Among ProStart’s best features, he says, is its partnership with some of the best chefs in the state, who visit schools to discuss industry trends, mentor students as they develop and provide co-operative employment opportunities in their senior year.

Among the highlights of the year, Leishman says, is the annual Student Invitational competition, where school teams face the challenges of preparing a meal in one hour and presenting a plan for an innovative restaurant concept. It’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Shark Tank” wrapped into one.

“Anyone who wants a job out of this competition — they’ll be hired immediately,” Leishman says.

But ProStart, and the other pathways, are about more than just getting a job. ProStart, and six others, use a curriculum designed by national organizations, so the instruction is aligned with recognized skills for each industry. The programs typically offer some sort of national certification (for ProStart, it’s ServSafe, a food-handling certification) as well as the opportunity to earn college credits that give a jumpstart toward earning an associate’s degree in the pathway field.

“When they graduate, these kids are ready to enter the workforce, but 85 percent are accepted into college. … Many enter a two-year program at Delaware Technical Community College,” Leishman says, “and our top kids — they go to the Culinary Institute of America, the University of Delaware hospitality program, or Johnson & Wales University.”

In addition to learning what it takes to work in the kitchen, or in the front of the house, students in ProStart develop skills that can be valuable in many professions — things like critical thinking, communication, teamwork and time management, Leishman says.

“It has built my confidence and broadened my education,” says Kayla Dempsey, a senior at St. Georges Tech who hopes to become a pastry chef and possibly start her own business. “Without ProStart, I never would have thought about a possible career in management.”

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