LAND O'LAKES — Jessica Cooper, decked out in her chef's hat and Johnson & Wales University smock, beamed as she counseled her students on the final touches of their baked goods.
After seven years working in a 1970s-era home economics classroom with electric burners and small sinks, Cooper finally could talk cinnamon roll filling and orange zest in a state-of-the-art bake shop replete with convection ovens, ice cream makers and sanitizing sinks.
And that's just one of the three modern kitchens in Land O'Lakes High School's new culinary arts academy, which the district completed over the summer at a cost of just over $6 million.
"This is better than some culinary universities," Cooper, a Johnson & Wales graduate, said as she gave hints on the best way to blend cold butter into a batter. "There's no comparison."
The new academy has won over the nearly 200 students who are taking cooking classes there. They range from freshmen, who can complete a four-year program leading to culinary and management certification, to seniors who have taken some culinary classes and now get a taste of working in a professional kitchen.
"I love it so much," said senior Alix Williams, 17, who has taken all of the school's culinary courses and plans to become a professional chef. "It's such a big change, coming from a tiny classroom to here. My first day, I was overwhelmed."
The opportunity to have real-world cooking experiences in the new facility is a great way to learn important skills in an interesting way, said sophomore Manny Lugo, 15, who began taking culinary arts two weeks ago.
"They don't bore you. You actually learn something," Lugo said. "You can use this all your life."
That's a key piece of the career academy concept that Pasco public schools embarked upon about six years ago, even before state lawmakers required districts to offer more high-skills, high-demand programs. Pasco leaders long have asserted that the district should better prepare teens for work, as well as college, with more vocational and technical courses.
Over the past few years, every county high school has implemented at least one career academy, with varying degrees of success. These include such programs as auto mechanics at Wesley Chapel High, engineering at River Ridge High and construction at Pasco High.
The culinary academy has raised its set of concerns. It didn't draw nearly the level of community or foundation contributions that district officials had hoped for. As a result, it still lacks some of the equipment it was supposed to have.
It also was built shortly after the district added modern kitchens to Anclote and Fivay high schools, which also have culinary arts courses but not as part of an academy. That brought out questions about duplication of services in a time of budget restrictions.
There's also the issue of access, as the academies are open as magnets, but only if students can provide transportation and the home schools have space available in core academic classes. The culinary academy soon might have busing available along with the service that transports International Baccalaureate students to Land O'Lakes, career education supervisor Terry Aunchman said.
Is the investment worth it?
"That will be a long-term answer, depending on how many students enroll and how well it performs, as with all our academies," said School Board vice chairman Allen Altman, who for years pushed for a new vocational school in eastern Pasco rather than parceling programs to individual campuses.
He said the feedback he's received so far has been positive.
That's certainly the case inside the culinary academy's walls, where some students said they felt as if they already had entered college.
"I think it's the coolest thing I've ever seen," said senior Hunter Howard, 17, as she prepared orange-cranberry loafs. "I've been in professional kitchens before. This is at least as cool, if not cooler."
Michael Rigberg left his position as food and beverage director for the St. Pete Times Forum to help run the academy. He said the hands-on learning program will help guide students toward a meaningful career in a busy industry, or it might help them decide against it.
"We place a lot of responsibility on kids at 17 years old," as they leave high school and must choose college or career paths without much insight, Rigberg said. "I'm able to help kids now to figure out whether they want to make that move."
He spoke about a real-life lesson his students had in the first weeks of school. They had barely completed their sanitary and safety instruction when called upon to prepare and serve lunch to a visiting group from a national school accrediting agency.
"My kids had absolutely no skills and abilities," he said. "Of course we said, 'We'll be happy to.' And they did absolutely marvelous."
They learned and tested recipes. Got a crash course in preparing tables and serving diners. Figured out the costs and other business aspects of the meal.
Then they executed.
"It made me feel great inside that in that short a period of time they could do something like this," said Rigberg, who recently was named the American Culinary Federation's Tampa area chef of the year.
Over time, things will only improve, he added.
One area for growth is the curriculum.
For now, academy students take culinary arts and agriscience courses as part of the program. The rest of their classes vary by individual.
The goal is to tie more culinary lessons into other classes for these students, if they're headed toward certification.
"One of the key foundations is curriculum integration," Aunchman said, noting that they're trying to keep all the freshmen in the program together for as many courses as possible.
That's a great idea, said Williams, the future chef.
"I think they should have other core courses that are tied to this, to prepare them," she said. A chemistry of food course, for example, "would help us know what can and go together, like you can't mix salt and yeast because it kills the yeast. I learned that when we were cooking bagels. … I did kill my bagels. I didn't know."
Rigberg expected good things to come.
"They're going to make me proud. I know it," he said. "We have to be patient."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.