Where are the Three R's? Anyone walking into Room 22 at Twin Lakes Elementary School in El Monte on a Thursday might wonder. The kids may be chopping onions, frying turkey or cooking a roast--during school!
What's going on is a cooking class that incorporates the Three R's with the One N and the One E. First, there's the menu and shopping list; that's Readin' and 'Ritin'. Then there's the budget and price of foods; that's 'Rithmetic.
Then there are discussions about food package labels, fiber, Vitamin A and Vitamin C. That's Nutrition. And if you count knowing what to do with vegetable peelings, that's helping the landfill problem, or in other words, Ecology. What you do with the peelings, by the way, is bury them to make compost.
Carol Kapp's Special Education class--which is what the Thursday class is called--also teaches kids growing up in a challenging society how to become self-sufficient adults who know how to care and cook for themselves.
"Kids love it," Kapp says. "It's an enjoyable, informal and practical way of reinforcing reading, writing and math skills."
Take the question of budget. The students are given an allowance for the day's cooking experience, which might be anything from making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to preparing a pot roast luncheon for El Monte police officers, local school board members or other dignitaries.
Prices are estimated on the basis of newspaper food ads. "That gets them interested in reading the paper," says Kapp.
Budget monies are dispensed, and the kids, with Kapp or Michele Chavez, the teacher's aide, go to the market to buy the groceries. Does the budget balance out?
"Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, but there is always calculating to be done and a lesson to be learned," says Kapp. Listing ingredients to be purchased and outlining the menu teach lessons in organization and following directions. Cooking terms are discussed.
"What's the difference between chop and dice?" asked Kapp of the children one day as they were chopping onions and tomatoes. Well, everyone knew that one--sort of.
"What happens when you grate?" asked Kapp. That's what Brian Olivas, 10, was doing. "Carrots happen to be very high in Vitamin A and very good for healthy vision. Right?"
"Yeah," said Olivas wiping his grater on a striped smock donated by the Sports Car Club of Southern California, located in the El Monte area.
At that moment, in walked Officer Don Ness, one of the police officers adopted by the class members for the duration of the school year. The "Adopt-A-Cop" program has existed for the past six years in the Mountain View School District, in which El Monte is included. The program is designed to inspire youngsters to become good citizens.
Like the good intuitive cop Ness is, he had smelled something cooking while driving past Twin Lakes Elementary School on Gilman Avenue and decided to drop by. Of course, he also remembered that Thursday was cooking class day.
Because Ness is on a restricted, low-cholesterol diet, the classroom cooks decided to review the recipe for the tacos being prepared for lunch to ensure that the ingredients met Ness's restrictions.
No fat in the turkey, none in the lettuce. The tortillas were not fried in lard, as is traditional, but simply heated in a nonstick skillet. The remaining list of ingredients--raw tomatoes, carrots and onions--were also fat-free. So Ness went over to the taco bar and helped himself to a hefty taco filled with freshly cooked ground turkey, lettuce, tomatoes, green onions and carrots, and topped it all off with a spoonful of salsa, which had also been made by the student cooks.
Cutting down on fat is another class goal. "Our kids had a hard time passing the National Physical Education test," says Kapp. "There is a high level of overweight (kids) in our school, so we decided to work on exercise and diet by reinforcing knowledge about the role of fat in foods."
As a result, many of the children now help parents plan meals and even cook at home. Olivas, for instance, inspired his parents to start a vegetable garden. Rodriguez, who helps mother care for his younger siblings, cooks "good snacks" when he gets hungry. Paul Fregoso, 11, helps his Mom cut tomatoes, shred lettuce and fry tortillas. Ludivina Saucedo, 11, helps her Mom make enchiladas with chiles and cheese. Raoul Mendosa, 12, cooks spaghetti sauce and fries chiles for the chiles rellenos prepared by his mother.
The fun the children have cooking in the Special Ed class is made possible by the existence of a stove and refrigerator brought into the classroom by Kapp, who fought long and hard to get electricity hooked up and enough money budgeted to buy a stove. "The refrigerator was resurrected from a teachers' lunchroom," she says. "We're lucky to have a full kitchen. Most (special education classes) don't."
If her students were handing out grades, Kapp's class would get an A. "Yeah," says Anthony Rodriguez, 12. "It's the best class I ever had."
Who enjoys cooking most? "The boys, by far," she says. "For most of the girls, cooking is old hat. Boys, on the other hand, get a big kick out of it." And who is more apt to clean up afterward?
"You got it: the girls."