If you take a tour around just about any high school in Aurora, you’ll see many of the academic standbys that have permeated hallways for decades: algebra textbooks, lab manuals, “Catcher in the Rye” — just to name a few of the regulars. These staples have long-rattled, and will most likely continue to torment, many a reeling sophomore. However, the wing of the building that for years radiated the aroma of poorly proportioned cookies and the hum of Singers is now noticeably taciturn.
Once busy hives of home economics — brimming with crusty cans of Crisco, clumsily stitched potholders, and an entire classroom of Suzy Homemakers ogling at a very June Cleaver-esque instructor — have faded into monochromatic memories.
For students in Aurora, that traditional concept of home economics has faded into the education mausoleum alongside the abacus and hiding under your desk to protect yourself from an impending Axis invasion. So, where are teens supposed to learn the proper ratio of shortening to all-purpose flour, or how to patch a torn dungaree knee?
For kids in public schools in Aurora the answer is, well, complicated.
In the past couple decades, vintage home ec classes – those featuring baked Alaska and purring sewing machines — have been split, forked and furcated into a slew of various sub-disciplines under the umbrella of family and consumer sciences. In 1994, the education world ditched the term “home economics” in favor of the equally indirect FACS title. Since then, classes have been tweaked, dismantled and expanded to focus not as much on cooking and sewing, as nutrition, family development, financial literacy and other life skills.
“Family and consumer sciences have evolved to address a lot of the societal issues in the U.S. and here in Colorado,” Michelle Koch, FACS program director for the Colorado Community College System says. “With childhood obesity, the financial crisis families are going through, and the impact understanding childhood development can have on families, it’s really designed to help individuals build themselves in all aspects.”
In Aurora, classes that cover many of the skills Koch mentions can be hard to find. Aurora Public Schools don’t require high schoolers to take any incarnation of FACS classes, something that’s been true for at least the past 10 years, according to Patti Moon, spokeswoman for APS. The only class in the district that seems to fall within the FACS realm is a weeklong elective offered at Vista PEAK, which is a cooking class that focuses on learning simple recipes like lasagna, kitchen safety and some nutrition.
“Ours is the only culinary class in the school and the kids have really enjoyed it,” Bart Cron, who teaches the class, says. “These vocational classes are a great opportunity for students, it’s unfortunate that they’re no longer really around.”
While there are still some remnants of the home ec classes of yesteryear such as the abbreviated one at Vista, trends suggest that they are dwindling. The number of students enrolled in FACS classes nationwide dropped by over 2 million from 2002 to 2012, according to a study conducted by Dr. Carol Werhan, an associate professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. The study also found that there were close to 10,000 fewer FACS instructors at the end of the same 10-year period than at the beginning, with approximately 298 in Colorado and an impending shortage forecasted.
That scarcity of certified FACS teachers is almost more of an issue for the survival of FACS classes than budget cuts, according to Dawn Mallette, program director of FACS at Colorado State University. Mallette stated that the once booming FACS program at CSU has had a quieter presence on campus in recent years, graduating 20-25 students annually.
“We’re at that point in Colorado with a lot of teachers at retirement age and at childbearing age, and every year we have quite a few openings and have a hard time filling them,” she says. “People will say, ‘I hear they’re shutting down programs.’ It’s not as much that as that there’s a lack of people to fill those positions.”
Positions that are still unfilled at the beginning of the school year may be stop-gapped with a temporary instructor, someone from out of state, or may cause the program to be shut down, according to Mallette. She also noted that instructors from other disciplines can take a FACS content exam to assume the role as a FACS teacher, even though they may not have a background in it, a practice Werhan opposes.
“Say there’s a social studies teacher who can’t get a job,” Werhan says. “He or she may take the FACS content exam, and if they pass, they can get an FACS license. But it’s a lousy exam that most functioning, literate adults could pass, which results in there being no difference between those that are highly qualified and those that slipped in.”
However, there is a potential solution on the horizon — both for better enrollments and consistency between the quality of instructors — that many in the FACS field are hopeful will help to revive and steer this floundering area of academics.
The career pathway model, which focuses on readying students for a specific vocation for which they have shown aptitude, is seen by many as a way to right the ship and direct students back toward FACS-centric disciplines like culinary arts or interior design.
Capitalizing on this approach, many schools in Colorado are supplying students with an Individualized Career and Academic Plan upon their enrollment.
“We’re very hopeful for the impact of ICAP,” Mallette says.
In a slow rollout process that began in 2011, ICAP adds new academic standards that FACS employee’s hope will bolster interest and funding in their disciplines.
“One of the issues is schools cutting funding, but the interesting piece is, the new graduation guidelines are requiring that all students be counseled and given an ICAP, and FACS and (technical education) is one umbrella for a career path,” Koch says. “What we hope and anticipate is that the shift in requirements makes schools recognize and revisit the question of, ‘what piece of FACS programs do we need to reincorporate in order to best serve our students?’”
The Cherry Creek school district already provides students with early career opportunities as a part of their pro start program, which offers culinary art and design classes through local community colleges.
“We don’t have a class where we teach you to make tuna casserole,” Tustin Amole, spokeswoman for the school district, says. “But we have a pretty robust career and (technical education) department where we offer concurrent classes with community colleges.”
Terry Oakley, current president of the Colorado Association of Teachers of Family and Consumer Sciences, said she expects the focus on students’ careers to continue.
“We keep adding more of a career element,” she said. “We’re sneaking in a lot of elements to help them with their future careers and working to develop their whole self. It’s taking what they learn in the academic classes and applying them to real world situations — it pulls it all together.”