Sacramento County Office of Education
For Sacramento students facing the most severe educational challenges imaginable, Leo A. Palmiter Junior/Senior High School, a special education campus that draws from the districts all over the county, offers a chance to finally taste success.
The Culinary Arts Academy, operated by the Sacramento County Office of Education, provides students from Leo A. Palmiter Junior/Senior High School with work skills and life lessons, easing the transition into adult life.
Students enrolled in the program face educational challenges that have made learning difficult for them. Unable to succeed at their district schools, they’re placed in Palmiter but must be recommended to participate in the Academy.
“We are the last stop before a student has to go into a non-public program,” said Jeff Zahniser, chef for the Academy. “These are very high-risk kids with very severe cases of ADHD, schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and autism.”
The 35 students in the Academy work at the Culinary Café, which serves lunch once a week and is open to the public. Students plan the menu, prepare the food, serve it to the customers and clean the kitchen.
Zahniser said he’s focused on helping his students develop the soft skills that don’t come easy to students with emotional disturbances – getting along with others, showing up on time, wearing the proper uniform, respecting authority figures, and staying on task.
“We just wrap the cooking around the teaching of these skills,” he said. “They don’t know they’re learning how to work together as a team. They think they’re just learning to cook. Really, they’re learning skills they can use in any job.”
Zahniser said the Academy, now in its 17th year, is always looking for cross-curricular opportunities. For example, he said a science class might look at the chemistry and science behind baking, while a math class learns about food costs, menu pricing and restaurant design.
The Culinary Café serves lunch to the public most Thursdays. Menus are posted online ahead of time and the meal costs $7, a bargain considering what’s served. For example, a lunch in February featured a Palmiter garden salad, grilled orange sesame chicken, steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables, and apple crisps with whipped cream.
The Sustainable Agriculture Academy, housed at the same campus, makes a farm-to-fork theme possible. The gardens feature produce such as greens and tomatoes, and as well as fruit from the orchards planted five years ago.
The Culinary Arts Academy curriculum exposes students to information about jobs in the industry, including food writing, packaging, distribution, hospital food service, and home meal replacement. Frequent guest speakers share their first-hand insights into work in the food service industry.
An office on campus funded by a WorkAbility grant from the California Department of Education helps students find supervised employment opportunities, and pays them for their work at the Culinary Café.
“A majority of our students will go on to work in some form of food service,” Zahniser said. Former students have found work as cooks in the military service, at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, as sous chefs at Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, and at local Sacramento restaurants.
Students in the Academy recently participated in the ProStart cooking competition, an industry-sponsored event organized by the National Restaurant Association and held in all 50 states.
Palmiter was one of 32 schools in California to compete, and the only special education school. In addition to preparing a three-course meal in an hour, students demonstrated their skills at management tasks such as developing a concept for a restaurant, creating menus, and costing out food and other financials.
“We don’t have the results of the competition yet,” Zahniser said. “But we worked as a team, stayed focused and clean, and got the food out on time. I was very proud of our students. Plus, we had a lot of support from parents and guardians, which is good since our students come from such disadvantaged backgrounds. So no matter what happens, we won.”
Zahniser said he’s gotten great support from Superintendent of Schools David Gordon and the Sacramento County Board of Education. “We do a lot of catering for their events,” he said. “This has had a really positive effect, because lots of COE employees don’t often get to see students. They can say, ‘Wow, this is who I’m working for!’”
One reason Zahniser says he works so well with these kids is because he was also a learning disabled student. “I’m one of them. I can say to them, ‘I know how to get through this.’”
Zahniser said he was “an ADHD kid” who had lots of problems in school. “My father knew a chef who took me under his wing and became a mentor. My ADHD was a good thing in the restaurant industry because there is so much multi-tasking required.”
As a Culinary Institute of America graduate, Zahniser worked all over the country, and even taught at Cordon Bleu. After getting his teaching credential, he came to the Palmiter campus.
Zahniser said following up on what happens to Academy students once they leave school is challenging because so many of his students are in foster homes or homeless. However, many come back to visit and let him know how they’re doing.
Finding opportunities to help these students become successful fills Zahniser with pride. “This work helps me believe that there’s a place for everyone,” he said. “We all deserve to find a way to be successful.”