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Investing in 21st Century Skills: Profile of the CHAMPs program

“Knife!” “Corner!” “Yes, chef!” These are just a few of the phrases that can be overheard over the sounds of chopping, sautéing, pots clanging, and food sizzling in Wilcox High School’s CHAMPs (Culinary, Hospitality And Management Preparation) lab as students prepare pastries, breads, vegetables and more.  And for teacher Rizi Manzon, it’s like music to his ears.

The former executive chef was a student in the first Wilcox High CHAMPs class when it was created by Kelly Villareal in 1994. At that time, the program was housed in the B Building and, the kitchen was, in Manzon’s words,  “a very Betty Crocker, home economics style kitchen (oven, stove, microwave).” Twenty years later, Manzon was contacted by his former teacher and mentor, who recruited him to be an instructor in the program. “She [Villareal] cared for her students and found something for us to be proud of and gave us a family and sense of togetherness, and I strive to do the same with my students,” said Manzon.

For Manzon — who was accustomed to the fast-paced, high-stress environment of running a kitchen where “Yes, Chef” is the required response to any direction — the transition to teaching “was definitely one of the most challenging jobs that I’ve ever done,” said Manzon. Finding ways to engage, motivate, and inspire his students requires a different type of artistry and creativity than preparing delicious and beautifully-plated meals.  Now that his freshmen from four years ago have successfully graduated, Manzon is seeing the incredibly positive results of teaching in the CHAMPs program. CHAMPs is part of SCUSD’s Career Technical Education (CTE) program which provides the technical know-how, academic skills, knowledge, and training necessary to succeed in future careers. Beyond graduating from high school, Manzon wants students to use CHAMPs as a place to grow and learn about themselves.  “It’s so rewarding to watch them grow up, develop and change, to become confident and pursue their dreams,” said Manzon.

Manzon said that his seniors shared their reflections about how they started out with less confidence and more fear as freshmen and that they were grateful to persevere, learn, and gain confidence through their experiences.  “They know that they have my support as a teacher and that it’s okay to fail,” said Manzon, who said that he shares his own experiences of failure with his students. “I want to my students to know that if you’re falling apart after a setback, you’re not going to make it in life,” he said.  Manzon shared that he sets up certain lesson plans to challenge his students and ensure that they have to repeat the lesson in order to succeed. “This helps them learn to problem solve and critically think about new approaches instead of following everything ‘by the book,’” said Manzon. This requires the students to comprehend what they are reading and figure out how to approach the problem. 

These problem solving and critical thinking skills come into play when Manzon’s students are in the kitchen.  After learning the fundamentals and basics about pastries, breads, and savory dishes (starches, vegetables, proteins, plating), as well as food costs, and mise-en-place (chefs’ term for “everything in their place”), students form teams led by a sous chef to prepare recipes in the kitchen, which includes six stations, stovetop and hood, as well as a commercial line (workstation, grill, flat-top, fryer, two stovetop ovens, broiler, convection oven), small freezer, reach-ins and storage space.  Manzon then instructs the students on the organization of the kitchen, including the proper use of the kitchen chain of command in that all questions are to be directed to the sous chef, a position which is rotated each time students are in the kitchen.  “This teaches students the importance of working through processes and hierarchies and supporting cultures of organization. This carries over to so many other careers,” explained Manzon. “They are learning more about a job than just showing up to do it and going home,” he continued. In addition to the career skills that students learn in the CHAMPs program, they also learn about nutrition and develop their own personal profiles to determine their metabolic rate, calories needed based on their personal activity levels, and how to make nutrition relevant to their lives.

CTE is designed to prepare middle and high school students for a seamless transition into college programs and/or entry-level jobs after high school graduation, through real-world, hands-on experiences. Already, many current CHAMPs students are working part-time in professional kitchens.  “Their supervisors have shared with me that they have the skills of seasoned cooks,” said Manzon. The CHAMPs students have catered a number of different events for the SCUSD community including the Superintendent’s Luncheons at the Alternative Café adjacent to the kitchen, the Leadership Luncheon, and school site leadership meetings.  CHAMPs 3 students also have the opportunity to collaborate with the Juniper Hotel during their unit on hotel management and engage in mock interviews with the hotel’s management team. “CTE provides a viable career path choice to students. Hands-on and applied learning are crucial because they are so plugged into social media outside of school, and are lacking in nonverbal social cues in a professional environment” said Manzon. “They are learning interpersonal and professional skills that they may not gain otherwise,” he continued.

Last summer, culinary arts CHAMPs students placed second in the national competition of the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) National Leadership Conference.  The culinary arts competition requires the team to prepare a salad, main course, and dessert from scratch with certain ingredient parameters, as well as tools, preparation, and health and safety requirements. The team was the first Wilcox team that received second place since 1997 — which was the team on which Manzon participated. He has used his experience to garner some friendly competition with his students. “I encourage them to ‘beat my personal record’ by not only placing in regional or state competition but also the national level,” he explained.  This year, Our Food Innovations - Senior division team — comprised of Cole Bay and Sylvanus Fredson-Cole — garnered a gold medal and placed sixth overall. Applied Math for Culinary Management, solo team of Felix Gyugyi received a gold medal and placed first overall. Chapter in Review Portfolio competitor Patrick Kibilov was awarded a silver medal and placed twenty-first overall.

SCUSD is investing in the future of the CHAMPs program through continuing to grow and expand the course offerings available to students at Wilcox High School as well as in Peterson Middle School’s Culinary Program, which provides an ideal pipeline into the CHAMPs program for students who want to continue in the program.  While Manzon looks forward to ultimately updating the program’s 20-year-old kitchen equipment, he is confident that the 21st century, interpersonal, communication, and career skills that his students are learning will propel them successfully into the global economy, regardless of what career they choose. And that’s the icing on the cake.