Cherry Creek’s ProStart serves up state-best finish at nationals

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AURORA | Aurora diners will be hard-pressed to land reservations at Sift, one of the region’s newest award-winning eateries.

In fact, it will be some time before anyone enjoys a dish at the breakfast-bakery concept — the city in which the restaurant is based still needs to be founded.

Audra Cooper helps a group plate their food on Friday March 27, 2015 at Grandview High School. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora SentinelEarlier this spring, a 50-page business plan for Sift, a casual breakfast joint based in fictional ProStartville, Colo., earned a team from the Cherry Creek School District third-place honors at the National ProStart Invitational, a nationwide competition catered to students interested in restaurant management and the culinary arts.

Comprised of two students from Grandview High School, two from Cherokee Trail and one from Eaglecrest, the local team took third place in the national contest’s restaurant management competition, which featured plans for fictional eateries penned by secondary school students from 42 states.

Each team pitched their respective concept to a panel of judges in a roughly 10-minute presentation and answered about 20-minutes of ensuing critical thinking questions in a process that roughly mimicked the entrepreneurial television show “Shark Tank,” according to Audra Dunleavy, ProStart teacher at Grandview.

“It was a really cool opportunity for the kids with a lot of networking,” Dunleavy said of the contest, which was held in Dallas, Texas. “I think when students are able to apply a hands-on approach to their learning, it’s really impactful for them, instead of just sitting and listening to lectures,” Dunleavy said.

The Cherry Creek team’s third-place finish was the highest ever achieved by a Colorado school in the ProStart contest, according to Dunleavy. A team of students from the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs represented the state in the other, culinary-based section of the event, which required students to cook different foods. Both the Cherry Creek and Roaring Fork teams won a Colorado-based version of the contest earlier in the year, qualifying them for the national competition.

Each student on the Cherry Creek team earned roughly $88,000 in total scholarship offers for post-secondary educational opportunities, according to Dunleavy.

“What was really great about the management team was that it wasn’t stuff that you could only apply to hospitality,” said Kevin Graf, a recent Grandview graduate who was on the award-winning team and is planning on studying marketing at the University of Colorado Denver in the fall. “All of the business stuff that we learned you can apply to any field, which I thought was really cool.”

ProStart, a two-year program centered on food service and hospitality management coordinated by state restaurant associations, has proliferated in Cherry Creek and across Colorado in recent years with more than 850 students in 29 high schools across the state now participating, according to the Colorado ProStart website. Any student in CCSD can take the classes, but must do so at particular facilities currently only available at Grandview and Smoky Hill high schools, according to Dunleavy.

“I definitely think ProStart is growing in popularity,” she said.

That’s despite a greater trend of diminishing enrollment in family and consumer science classes across the country, according to national reports. The number of students enrolled in FACS classes nationwide dropped by more than 2 million from 2002 to 2012, according to a study conducted by 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.Audra Cooper holds Larry Esaev's team's plate as he describes why his team made what they did on Friday March 27, 2015 at Grandview High School. Cooper was named 2015 Colorado ProStart Teacher of the Year. Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

Dunleavy, who has taught ProStart classes for the past seven years, said that she’s hopeful a new career and technical education center in the district will continue to enhance the prevalence of ProStart in CCSD. The district announced earlier this year that it plans to pursue the construction of such a facility if voters approve property tax increases in the upcoming election.

ProStart students at Grandview regularly receive lessons and real-world examples that are bolstered by mentors from Chili’s, Yaya’s Euro Bistro and other area restaurants, according to Dunleavy. She added that students can also earn up to six college credits from Metropolitan State University of Denver if they participate in, and pass, the two years of classes.

Dunleavy said that next year’s ProStart class at Grandview is already full with a cap of 32 students, but that she tentatively plans to open up a second section in about two years.