Long tables formed a banquet-style dining experience for the Portage Optimist Club on Tuesday morning, while two students wearing chef hats prepared made-to-order omelettes from portable gas ranges on one side of the room. A buffet table along the opposite wall offered muffins, fruit and oatmeal.
Just last year, the room adjacent to the family and consumer science classroom at Portage High School was used for storage. Now, as a space for “pop-up” events, it sometimes serves as a cafe, a retail space or a dining area complete with catering service — all aimed at giving students work experience.
One of the chefs, senior Thomas Retherford, said he was glad to have the chance to cook for the Optimists.
“It was fun — talking to everyone, getting a little bit of words in and creating something that everyone enjoyed,” Retherford said. “Just seeing their faces as they ate it. … It was a great opportunity. Not many people get a chance to do that or get to experience it, especially at such a young age, so I’m glad Mrs. (Michelle) Madden gave me the opportunity to.”
Madden, the school’s new family and consumer science teacher, saw the room’s potential when she started in August. By October, she had moved everything out and prepared the room to become a flexible event space.
“I was just super motivated when I came in and I saw this space, and I thought, ‘This is such a waste, because these kids need this experience, just realizing that their skills can lead to something good,’” Madden said.
School administrators have been supportive of her vision. At different points so far this year, students in the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America club held a whoopie pie sale in the room and the cooking classes displayed their gingerbread houses.
Principal Josh Sween said the room offers a “great opportunity” for students to learn the various angles of family and consumer science, such as catering, baking and sales.
“But it’s also just a really cool cultural experience for our entire school,” Sween said, “because they’re planning on doing lots of different things with that cafe and allowing different clubs and organizations from the community to come in and have the students cater to them.”
They started with the Optimist Club of Portage. Sween’s wife, Erika, is a substitute teacher for Portage schools and a member of the Optimists. She had the idea to hold one of the club’s weekly meetings at the high school to allow students to show their talents and to make the Optimists more visible to a younger generation.
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“We’re just trying to look for things students are already doing in class, but take it a step further,” she said.
Optimists President Patrick Hartley and member Wayne Edwards complimented the students on their cooking and catering. Hartley said the school was “very receptive.”
“I thought it was very interesting, and I’m glad to see certain kids being able to be prepared for what they might do in the future,” Edwards said.
Though junior chef Evan Merino was “very, very nervous” at the beginning of the event, he said it got easier once he and Retherford started talking with the Optimists. The culinary arts students practiced making omelettes several times during class, in addition to practicing at home, he said.
Merino already considers Madden one of the best teachers at PHS and said he might pursue a culinary career after high school because of her.
“Mrs. Madden gives me the chance to actually express myself when it comes to something I like,” such as cooking, he said. “Most classes — they don’t really do that.”
Senior Cora McElroy, who worked as a server Tuesday, said it was a good learning experience for the chefs.
“I thought that it was good for us to be able to interact with the people instead of just interacting with the people in our kitchen. So we actually got to see it and do it hands-on,” McElroy said.
Madden said she can reconfigure the room to match whatever functions community groups want to hold at the high school. She also will work with each group to make sure the price is affordable but still enough to raise some money for the family and consumer science department. The Optimists paid $8.50 per person.
Principal Sween said he likes what Madden is doing with the pop-up space.
“Anytime we can create partnerships with the community and show them what our kids can do, that’s going to be a huge benefit to everybody in the Portage community,” he said.
Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.