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Institutional Dining: Integrated Arts Academy

Chef Walter Wittwen and Lesley Wyman are working overtime to ensure ProStart students at IAA have the resources to make a career in the restaurant industry.

ProStart students at the Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) in Chaska have a former Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts instructor as a teacher and a learning environment that looks more like a classroom than a kitchen. 

Their ”lab” is basically a couple of standing coolers, sinks, a stove and oven, an old refrigerator that has been turned into dry storage and a white mixer.

“It’s plain Jane,” admits Walter Wittwen, who took on the role of culinary arts teacher at the alternative-education public high school three years ago after the college program closed. “We need hoods, gas stoves, deep fryers … but I make do with what I have. I can still teach them what I know.”

Because the school’s model is hands-on learning, Wittwen takes the students on field trips to restaurants and farmers markets to supplement classroom time. The school offers one ProStart class, where students are trained to work in the restaurant industry, and two general home economics-style classes. ProStart is a partnership between high school districts and the local and National Restaurant Association. 

In addition, the school has a garden students tend, an aquaponics system to raise tilapia, and an abundance of basil plants, which provide the main ingredient for the pesto students sell at their annual fundraiser.  “We’re a consumable school,” says Lesley Wyman, a community specialist with the school district. “We sustain and renew resources through use.”

Because of its slim resources, student lunches are sent over from Chaska High School daily, but then, ProStart students don’t have a school cafeteria either. 

IAA, which is part of the East Carver County School District, is an interesting place to visit. An institutional-looking building at the top of a hill, its hallways are lined with all manner of art from floral designs on mannequin heads to framed drawings and paintings with varying degrees of skill. In the science area, tadpoles who morph into tiny frogs share a terrarium with a large frog that may or may not have eaten them—time will tell, the science teacher says. Sometimes the babies are just good at hiding, he adds.

According to its website, the school’s “curriculum embeds culinary, horticulture, visual arts, and floral and textile design into core subjects such as math, science, English and social studies.”

About 80 full-time students attend the school, as well as students who are completing their degree online. The rest of the district boasts around 10,000 students. 

Wyman connects the community with the students so students can find a career path, whether it’s college or entering the workforce right after graduation. 

One field that’s desperate for workers right now is culinary, which is why she’s determined to find a way to help the ProStart program get the equipment it needs. She says she’s had nearby casinos pleading with her to send students to be paid apprentices. The internationally recognized Hazeltine National Golf Course hired four of the school’s culinary students to work the recent national golf tournament it hosted. “What’s great about the industry is they (employers) want the kids to have high school degrees,” Wyman says. 

A referendum that would have added $4.5 million to the district’s budget was defeated by voters last November, and Wyman worries that a disproportionate amount of budget cuts will affect IAA. 

The community has been a great resource for the school. Master gardeners have volunteered in the outdoor garden in the summer and one business regularly donates organic seeds. The artists in the school have interviewed residents in a senior center for input on painting a mural at the center. 

“Creating partnerships is my job,” Wyman says, adding that the larger community has a chance to help out May 1, when the school holds its annual fundraiser. A great time for a restaurateur to pick up some homemade pesto and some artwork for the dining room. 

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