Early June finds most students counting down until the last week of school. The last day. The last bell. And then they are finally, officially ... free ... at least for the summer. In Spokane-area schools, this happens around June 17, followed by a brief intermission after which some buildings reopen for summer school.
For some students, summer school is the difference between graduating (on time, if at all). For others, however, summer school is pure enrichment, like the Basics of Baking class offered at NEWTech PREP Academy in North Spokane.
Some students in Basics of Baking this summer simply like to cook, while others are interested in culinary as a career.
"When it comes to baking, it's a little bit of a disaster," says Sonny Gonzalez, a 10th grader who adds, "I make a mean spaghetti."
"This [class] is my comfort zone," says Sophia Rowley, a soon-to-be-senior attending the half-credit NEWTech class alongside her sister. Rowley has been thinking about pharmacy school, but is also drawn to the culinary world and has taken the baking class before.
"You get to experiment in a way that is not stressful," she says.
NEWTech's four-week class is accelerated. Instructor Eric Cook starts with food safety, knife handling and the general rules of the kitchen. Next, students make sourdough starter that they pour into containers, adding silly labels like Kan-Yeast and Bread Pitt.
By day four, one of two days we recently visited the teaching kitchen, students are making one of three types of cookies.
Next, they'll make 10 different quickbreads — biscuits, scones, muffins, cornbread and more. They next use yeast to make pizza dough, rolls and bread. And more than 110 hours into class — which meets for seven hours daily — students finish Basics of Baking by making cakes.
"I think the philosophy that I enjoy teaching the most is that there are simple ingredients: flour, butter, cream and eggs, [which are] so simple and profoundly variable at the same time," says Cook, who's in his first year of teaching at NEWTech.
Cook is still completing the yearlong certification process required of industry experts who transition to teaching technical skills in Washington's public schools.
In addition to baking basics, Cook focuses on teaching real-world skills gleaned from a lifetime of industry experience. His impressive dossier includes the Davenport Hotel, Beverly's at the Coeur d'Alene Resort, and Northern Quest Resort and Casino, where he was general manager and sommelier at Masselow's Steakhouse. He also taught at Spokane Community College's Inland Northwest Culinary Academy.
Cook is especially interested in teaching intentionality and mise en place, he says, the latter term being a foundational concept in any kitchen. It means knowing your recipe and having your ingredients and work station prepared to execute.
"Take those simple ingredients, set a goal and assemble those ingredients to set yourself up to succeed," Cook says. "Works in the bakery, works in life."
Culinary skills are one of 16 offerings at NEWTech, which offers 12 different courses during the summer, and one of the longest-running of the 40-year-old school's programs, dating to 1982.
NEWTech provides career and technical education instruction to students in grades nine through 12 living within the Central Valley, Cheney, Deer Park, East Valley, Freeman, Mead, Medical Lake, Nine Mile, Riverside, Spokane and West Valley school districts. It's one of 14 such skill centers statewide.
During the regular school year, when NEWTech's culinary program is only available to juniors and seniors, it's comprehensive. Cook teaches front-of-the-house operations, like restaurant service and management, and operation of the building's café. Fellow instructor Cynthia Monroe teaches back-of-the-house classes, including safety and sanitation, prep cooking, and front line cooking.
It's also popular. One hundred students are enrolled in the 2022-23 culinary program, says Patrick Lenihan, the school's assistant director.
Both NEWTech's yearlong and summer-length classes help students prepare for the future, when the last bell on the last day signifies not just summer vacation, but the jumping-off point into — hopefully — a new career.
Employment is more challenging for those under 18, says Cook, yet this past year there were plenty of culinary jobs for students, around a third of whom actually got hired, including at Chaps, Sushi.com and Sodexo.
Other NEWTech students have gone on to pursue culinary training in college, says Cook. In the past year, two went to Washington State University, one to a school in Utah and four enrolled at Spokane Community College, which has an articulation agreement that allows high school students to earn college credit.
When she goes to college, says Ava Moore, who goes by Dylan, it will include business classes so she can open her own grocery store, like Huckleberry's, she says.
It's July 14, the next-to-last day of class and students are finishing their final project: a cake.
Moore, who's wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers, jeans and an apron with hot peppers on it, has finished her cake and is making ketchup from scratch to go with lunch.
"We can always bring in recipes to try," says Moore, who thought the best thing about the class was having lots of time to experiment.
Moore is excited about the next step in her plan. She has applied to Twigs Bistro and plans to return to NEWTech in the fall, spending half a day each at NEWTech and her regular school, where she'll be in 11th grade.
Hadassa Slind, also a junior, would love to take more culinary classes, but she's going into welding.
"In school they do a lot of stuff for your brain," says Slind, "but here we get to work with our hands."
Slind was so enamored of baking, she borrowed Cook's copy of Wayne Gisslen's Professional Cooking, a hefty tome packed with 1,200 recipes.
The book was challenging, Slind admits, but she tried several recipes, including the English muffins she is making while she, too, waits for other students to finish their cakes.
Slind is thankful her mother signed her up to learn how to bake, she says.
"It's a life skill everyone should know." ♦