Stanislaus Culinary Arts Academy
by Justin Souza
Just off Yosemite Avenue in Oakdale lies one of the area’s most innovative educational programs. And one of very few that boasts a full commercial kitchen.
The Stanislaus Culinary Arts Institute is part alternative-education facility, part cooking school. The institution offers vocational instruction to more than 60 alternative education kids, as well as students from local high schools and junior colleges.
For 18 months now, the Stanislaus Culinary Institute has been providing career education tostudents as part of the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE). According to Division Director Scott Kuykendall, the Culinary Arts Institute, Turlock’s Stanislaus Military Academy and the new Stanislaus Industrial Technology Institute in Patterson are all part of SCOE’s effort to found vocation-focused institutes that help students gain marketable skills. “It’s not just about the academics,” said Kuykendall. “It’s the job skills, the workforce training. We feel that these are important when you’re trying to graduate successful students.”
At the Culinary Arts Institute, students who fall outside of local city school districts—whether because of disciplinary or attendance issues or transfer requests—receive vocational training that can help them find employment within county lines.
SCOE transformed the Oakdale facility from an independent study program where students would meet with teachers two hours per week into a program that students attend for at least four hours per day. Even so, attendance has risen to almost 97%. “We want our programs to be academically rigorous, but also relevant to students. It’s very important to me that there is a hands-on, skills-based component at all of our schools. With this school, more students in the area are being introduced to culinary arts and hospitality, and are more apt to get employed in that particular industry sector,” said Kuykendall.
At the commercial stove in the culinary classroom of the Culinary Institute, instructor Brent Rodriguez leads a group of 15 kids dressed in chef’s whites in the day’s lesson.
Rodriguez is head chef and lead instructor. He brings experience in the culinary industry to the job along with years of teaching experience and a passion to make a difference in kids’ lives.
Rodriguez admits that initially, he didn’t know whether the program would be a success. “The kids have just been fantastic. They’ve come so far, and I couldn’t be more proud of them. “Nine kids have graduated from Rodriguez’s class so far. Four of these now work in restaurants and two attend culinary school, including one who is enrolled in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.
As for the students, they recognize that they’re fortunate to have found the school. According to Tyler, a student in Rodriguez’s afternoon class, “It’s not like a regular high school. You have more one-on-one time with the teachers. I feel like the learning experience is better, too. It’s a lot of fun.”
Tony, another student, looks at the school as a job opportunity. “I’m going to get my certificate and I’m going to go to JC next year. I’ll be able to find a job easier having this.”
According to Rodriguez, the kids might come in with a wall up, but under his instruction those walls often come tumbling down over the course of the year. “Years ago, a college professor told me that the kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” said Rodriguez. “I find it even more true at an alternative education school. Because I’ve built up that relationship, they know where I’m coming from even when I have to give them tough love. They know that it’s a learning experience.”
Rodriguez’s culinary lessons tie into the lessons his students are learning in the classroom. “If they’re doing history, we’ll spin the globe, stop it somewhere, then they’ll research the area and find a traditional food for that area. They’ll find out what’s so special about it, then they’ll make that food. It gives them a different perspective.”
Changing perspectives is what the Stanislaus Culinary Arts Institute is all about. The school is much more than an alternative education facility. It’s a way to create
bright futures for students who might have otherwise slipped through the cracks. And that’s the kind of difference that any educational facility can be proud of.
To find out more about the Stanislaus Culinary Institute, visit stancoe.org.