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Port Townsend Educator Teaches Essential Hands-On Skills for Life

How Port Townsend High School Teacher Jennifer Kruse helps students foster skills for life while giving back to their community. 

April 27, 2018

“OK, listen up!” says Jennifer Kruse. “The lasagna we’re making this morning will be taken to the homeless shelter later today for dinner.” 
 
Jennifer Kruse’s Culinary Arts students at Port Townsend High School nod and get to work, chopping onions, peppers, browning meat, and making red sauce as they chat and take the occasional photo for their social media pages.

Kruse smiles with students as they prep lasagna. Nutritious prepared meals, like that tasty lasagna with onions and herbs from the garden, are regularly delivered to a local homeless shelter.
Kruse smiles with students as they prep lasagna. Nutritious prepared meals, like that tasty lasagna with onions and herbs from the garden, are regularly delivered to a local homeless shelter.

These young cooks discover the value of teamwork as they prep under pressure in Kruse’s classroom kitchen. Her class imparts much more than just the skill of slicing and dicing efficiently or how to pair foods — though these skills build confidence.  By the end of the school year, her students will earn a Washington State Food Worker card — a gateway of sorts for students who may go on to find jobs in the food industry.

“One of the big things we’re seeing in the culinary industry is a shortage of trained professional employees, so when students come to my class, they are able to really get that hands-on experience of learning the basic skills they need. By having those skills, they’re able to move much quickly through those training processes, as well as move to the higher-paying jobs and actually make a viable living,” Kruse says.

This emphasis on vocational careers is all part of Port Townsend School District’s commitment to providing students career possibilities that don’t require college degrees.

It was just four years ago that the district adopted as a mission and core value “place-based” education, a teaching concept that aims to connect student experiences to the local maritime community.

“Jen was one of those teachers who jumped wholeheartedly into that,” says Port Townsend High School principal Carrie Erhardt. “She formed partnerships with so many different people in the community, from farmers to health professionals to chefs. She really embodies the idea of place-based education.”

In Kruse’s nine years of teaching she's seen the value of these investments for students.

”A large majority of our students in Washington State move toward community college and technical programs, and so by having those hands-on experiences at the high school level, we allow them to participate and explore in those classes and learn skills that they’re able to take with them and use in our industries,” says Kruse.

When they’re not perfecting their knife techniques, the students are harvesting kale and cabbage from the Port Townsend High School Food Bank Garden. Rain or shine, these first-year students rally to do chores many have never done before — raking, weeding, shoveling mulch into wheelbarrows.

The garden — which was first planted in 2012 — is thriving, as are the  ninth-graders who tend it for school credit. During the summer months, it’s a community effort, with local farms, volunteers and master gardeners filling in. Their efforts in the garden have benefited countless people in the community. Vegetables are donated to the school cafeteria for lunches and to the local food bank.  Nutritious prepared meals, like that tasty lasagna with onions and herbs from the garden, are regularly delivered to a local homeless shelter.

“It’s so important for them to see where their food is going, who’s enjoying it and how much of a difference it’s making for people,” Kruse says.  

Students shovel mulch in the Port Townsend High School Food Bank Garden.
Students shovel mulch in the Port Townsend High School Food Bank Garden.

“I think the best part about it is giving back to the community, knowing it makes their day that much better, knowing that they have warm food in their stomachs,” says student Jacob Boucher as he assembles a meal. 

Community is the key element in Jennifer Kruse’s teaching career.  A native of Port Townsend, she’s seen the demographics of the area change as young adults relocate due to the lack of jobs. As she observed juniors and seniors, navigating the college application process or trying to figure out options besides higher ed, an idea was born. In partnership with Skillmation Mentoring Connections, she spearheaded a program for all Port Townsend High freshmen that required them to participate in regular meetings with mentors. Throughout the school year, mentors and mentees meet to talk about academic goals and life goals, from how to eat healthily, to getting enough sleep and exercise. This year alone, over 35 mentors have participated to help students get a head start in preparing for life beyond high school.

Kruse and her students proudly smile with their culinary creations.
Kruse and her students proudly smile with their culinary creations. 

“We start with our freshman students and we work on job skills, soft skills, resume-building, interview skills, and spend time exploring colleges as well as possible jobs they might be interested in,” says Kruse. “Some of our at-risk students, who really do not have that connection either at home or with their families, really benefit from having that adult who’s listening, cares about how they’re doing, how they’re planning, what their goals are.”

Anyone who knows Kruse will testify that her gift for helping people make those connections is a perfect fit for the work. 

“Jen has a such a vibrant personality. Students are just naturally drawn to her,” says Erhardt. “She’s always smiling at the end of the day, so that says something, too.”


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Kathy Tuohey

Veteran producer Kathy Tuohey has been working in broadcast television for over 25 years. From daily segments to documentaries, her expertise includes arts programming, human interest stories and education specials. She is managing producer of the Golden Apple Awards, produces the Pathways to Excellence education series, and is a contributor to IN Close.  This Northwest native’s natural curiosity about the people and places of our region keeps her on the lookout for the next great story.

More stories by Kathy Tuohey

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