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Woodland Hills baking class ends; who'll be taking the cakes?

Culinary instructor Susan Holtz knew the dough-strapped district was losing more than just a popular adult education class. There was also a baker's legacy at stake.

June 24, 2012|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Frances Kuyper decorated this cake model of Princess Diana in the 1990s. One hundred forty of her cakes, which she used as finishing models for her students, face an uncertain future if the culinary program at the West Valley Occupational Center is permanently scrapped because of budget problems in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Frances Kuyper decorated this cake model of Princess Diana in the 1990s.… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

Susan Holtz's baking class was cooking right along until the bad news arrived: The school had run out of dough.

The culinary arts instructor was one of those at the West Valley Occupational Center who received a pink slip because of budget problems in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But Holtz, who headed up the Woodland Hills program for 14 years, knew the district was losing more than just a popular adult education class. There was also a baker's legacy at stake: What was going to happen to the 140 elaborately decorated cakes that Holtz used as finishing models for her students?

The cakes — layers of Styrofoam artfully covered with hardened royal icing and rolled fondant — were collected by the late cake-decorating expert Frances Kuyper and displayed in her Pasadena cake museum and library.

Holtz routinely took her students to Kuyper's museum so they could study the models and discuss techniques with Kuyper. "She was like a grandmother to them. She was very generous," Holtz said.

When Kuyper and her husband eventually moved to a retirement home in Boyle Heights, she took the cakes and her 1,000-book cake-decorating library with her. Hollenbeck Palms administrators kindly allowed her to re-create the museum in their basement.

The collection seemed to be headed for its own retirement after Kuyper's death in 2010 at age 92. But before the cakes were tossed out, Holtz and a group of her students showed up to save them.

Back at the occupational center, Holtz recruited student draftsmen from the school's computer-aided design class to draw up permanent displays for the cakes and fledgling woodworkers from its carpentry class to build them.

But then along came the school district's budget crisis and planned cuts to 61 adult education centers, including the 9,763-student Winnetka Avenue campus.

The school's entire teaching, administrative and support staff received layoff notices. "I'll tell you, there were tears flowing here on Tuesday when the session ended and people were saying goodbye," said Holtz, 65, of Mar Vista. "This is a terrific place, and people here are like a family."

Holtz printed signs begging that she be called at home before the district throws out of any of Kuyper's cakes if the culinary program is permanently scrapped.

"I'll rent a storage unit if I have to," Holtz said. "I don't want these cakes to be thrown out. We have a lot of history in these. They cannot be thrown out."

According to Holtz, students who have completed the 20-week, 260-hour course have had success finding jobs.

Marianne Hudz said she enrolled in the class after losing her job as a human resources administrator at Cal State Northridge. Two days after finishing, she landed a professional baker's position at Universal Studios. She starts July 2.

"This was a critical place for the next phase of my life," said Hudz, a 58-year-old West Hills resident who has a bachelor's degree from Occidental College.

"What was the LAUSD thinking, cutting back on adult education? Without this, I wouldn't have qualified for my new job," she said. "This is a microcosm of Los Angeles. Students are young and old and from every background. My auto mechanic, the contractor who remodeled my house, my hairdresser — they all went to West Valley Occupational Center and own their own businesses now."

Holtz said she has been advised to plan a culinary course that would be financed entirely by student fees. In the past, students have paid $75 — an amount that does not cover the cost of the 20-week sessions, she said.

For now, the fate of the culinary arts program is up in the air, according to the West Valley center's principal, Veronica Montes. Prodded by LAUSD's budget uncertainty, Montes has decided to end her 29-year career with the district to become principal of the Culver City Unified School District's adult school, continuation high school and independent study program.

"This is absolutely not the time for L.A. to cut programs that put people to work," she said. "L.A. Unified has prioritized its programs, and adult ed is pretty much at the bottom of the priorities."

Los Angeles school board members agreed June 12 to retain about half of their adult education program, according to Monica Carazo, a district spokeswoman. Forty-eight percent of the classes offered last spring will be offered in the fall, she said.

"At this time no one is employed at West Valley. People there have been put on the substitute list so they can keep their benefits," Carazo said.

"Hopefully, some of the teachers and support staff there will be picked up in July when the staffing assignments are completed."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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