Southside students make magic in the kitchen with community support


A typical classroom brings the outside world in through books, videos, and lessons that prepare students for their future.

The Life Skills course at Southside High School is not your typical classroom – for these students, the future begins now.

Rather than sitting in desks and listening to lectures, students engage in hands-on learning by cooking in the classroom kitchen, making cards for nursing home residents, and volunteering with non-profit organizations – all made possible through community partnerships with the United Way of Fort Smith Area and the Arvest Bank Million Meals Campaign.

“I want to teach them not only the skills that they’re going to learn doing these activities, I want to tell them about their community because think about it, most of them don’t go out into the community,” Meagan Thompson said. , a special education teacher at Southside High School.

Thompson and Todd Watkins teach the Life Skills course, where students learn community and work skills, home and daily life skills, and functional academics – taking real-world classroom lessons.

Classroom activities include learning job skills, including inventory and operating a cash register, as well as personal skills, including hygiene and budgeting.

One of the ways students work together is by shopping online.

“A concept like the scarcity of resources, for our students, it would be too much for them to understand as a summary [concept]”Watkins said. “But when we say, ‘Okay, we have $10, and we want to make a healthy snack – how do we do that?'”

The class works together to stick to the budget while creating healthy snacks and meals. Classroom cooking activities work on identifying food groups and following recipes.

One of the favorite meals for students is the annual Thanksgiving celebration. The class takes weeks to plan the menu, research healthy recipes, learn about kitchen safety and hygiene, and assign the different dishes.

Students in the life skills class at Southside High School enjoy a Thanksgiving feast they prepared in November 2021.

Some of the items included potatoes, ham, broccoli casserole, pumpkin pie, and pecan pie.

“This year we added to it,” Thompson said, holding handmade centerpieces topped with faux fall leaves. “… The kids did all of that, and we had a huge spread.”

Opportunities in the community

Life Skills course activities focus on community-based teaching, using partnerships to create new opportunities for students inside and outside the classroom.

Through the Arvest Million Meals campaign and partnership with United Way of Fort Smith Area, Thompson receives a grant to help buy healthy food for the classroom kitchen.

Gary Udouj, district director of career education and innovation at the Peak Innovation Center with Fort Smith Public Schools, connected Thompson with the United Way of Fort Smith Area to help students find volunteer opportunities. . Udouj is also Chairman of the United Way of Fort Smith Area Board of Directors.

“[Udouj] Meagan and I connected, and once I got to this course, I fell in love and we wanted to see what other ways we could help,” said Mitzy Little, director of marketing for United Way of Fort Smith Area. . “Every time we heard about their food program… we contacted Arvest at that time because we were a Million Meals beneficiary… This is where the Arvest Bank Million Meals Kitchen was born .”

Jennifer Caldwell of Arvest Bank, Mitzy Little of United Way and teachers Meagan Thompson and Todd Watkins stand in the Arvest Bank Million Meals Kitchen at Southside High School in Fort Smith.

The Arvest Million Meals Campaign is an annual fundraising campaign for charities in the region that fight food insecurity.

“Arvest and United Way have a big heart for the people in our communities, and we care about making them a better place to live and work,” said Jennifer Caldwell, vice president and chief marketing officer at Arvest Bank in Ft. Smith. “When it comes to our food initiatives to feed the local hungry, we both understand that basic needs must first be met for people to thrive.”

This year’s 12th annual Million Meals campaign kicks off on April 1 and runs until May 28.

A bright future for all students

In the Life Skills classroom and throughout Southside High School, teachers and staff place special emphasis on preparing students for careers.

“In the past, you’d hear a lot of people talk about college or career, and then it sort of turned into college and career,” said Jeff Prewitt, principal of Southside High School. “…Well, now you just hear a career goal. So whether you are leaving high school and embarking on a career or leaving high school to enter college, the end goal is for you to have a career and not just a job.

Special projects are underway for students at Southside High School, including an on-campus cafe, a Southside Mavericks merchandise store, and planters.

The Southside Mavericks cafe and merchandise store will benefit the school’s small business operations class, Prewitt said, and students in the life skills class will be able to work on inventory and storage. The boutique will have a soft opening in the spring and will be fully operational within a year.

The garden boxes will continue the lessons of a former campus garden, allowing life skills students to grow produce while creating a living lab for biology students.

“Children don’t just [volunteering] here,” Thompson said. “We are trying to expand it. How can you help your community? How can you learn a skill while helping your community? »

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