Eighth-graders Joselle Lopez, left, and Luna Ewing work on making their grilled-cheese sandwiches during a Life Skills class at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School on Thursday.

Eighth-graders Joselle Lopez, left, and Luna Ewing work on making their grilled-cheese sandwiches during a Life Skills class at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School on Thursday.

Underfunded Juneau middle school cooking class raising money

On a recent morning at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, students clustered around their Life Skills teacher Jessie Kovach as she demonstrated how to make panini. Kovach rotated the students through the six different George Foreman grill stations while others waited their turns by working on their sewing projects. As shown by their teacher, the students assembled their sandwiches, swiping olive oil on the bread, adding pesto, basil, tomato and Anaheim peppers along with the cheese and meat before grilling.

As seventh-grader Maile Quigley spread pesto on her brown bread, she said Life Skills was probably her favorite class, and out of anything the class has created so far, the Jambalaya recipe wins for best dish. She told the Empire she enjoys cooking with her family and likes to show her parents what’s she has learned to make at school. After the cheese turned gooey and the bread was bronzed, Quigley put the sandwich on her plate and then took a big bite. She nodded to herself in approval before going to join her classmates bent over their stitching.

“I love teaching middle school students, but the hardest part is my budget,” Kovach told the Empire as she observed her students as they worked.

If it weren’t for additional funds supplementing the school budget, many of these cooking classes wouldn’t be able to happen, Kovach said. They have the fully furbished kitchen, the cooking tools and everything else they need for the class except the funds for the ingredients.

According to principal Molly Yerkes, Kovach only has $528 to spend on her classes this year (in 2004 it was $1,700). Kovach will teach about 138 students this year, which results in $3.83 for supplies for each student for the entire year.

It’s simply not enough.

Kovach said if this were her only funds for the year, she would probably be stuck teaching students from a cookbook or purchasing just enough ingredients to demonstrate cooking a dish but students couldn’t actively participate.

“And even then, most of it would be flour-based because it’s cheap to make muffins,” she said, and though that can be fun for the students, she wants to bring in fresh ingredients to the class and teach them how to make healthy food choices.

While Kovach charges fees to parents at the beginning of the year, only two-thirds pay, and of those, it’s not always the full $30 amount. For the four years she has taught the class, Kovach said like most teachers, she has put hundreds of her own dollars into the class, but she alone cannot bridge the gap between what she needs to teach her class and what she’s got.

Fortunately, her friend Jess Parks stepped up.


Online fundraising

Parks heard from Kovach last spring about the funding problem. After a little pressing, she came to understand the full extent of the problem. Parks said she doesn’t have any children and doesn’t work for the Juneau School District, but when she learned about the issue, she knew she wanted to be part of the solution.

“I feel like it should be fixed by them having a full budget,” Parks said, “but I don’t see that happening. I saw 76 students standing in this really nice classroom with no raw materials. I’m not sure how to help with the real problem, but this is a good, temporary fix.”

Kovach took several of her class recipes, went to local stores and did a low budget estimate of how much all the ingredients would cost. While some of the cooking classes cost more than others, it averaged out to about $175 for all three classes (76 students total). Armed with these numbers and other information she researched about the school budget, Parks determined that the current budget with both the parent fees and the school funding only provides $0.20 per student per class, and to adequately fund the class, they need $2.34 per student per class. Parks said she and Kovach came up with a “ballpark estimate” and they were about $7,250 short of the mark.

Parks went to the Juneau Community Foundation in hopes of finding some large donors.

“It’s kids, it’s cooking, it’s nutrition — who wouldn’t want to support that?” Parks asked.

That turned up no leads, but executive director Amy Skilbred gave Parks the idea of a GoFundMe campaign. Neither Parks nor Kovach had done a Go Fund Me before, but Parks decided to dive in.

Parks snapped photos of the kids in class, typed up her information about the Life Skills budget and then launched her campaign on Sept. 21.

As of Friday afternoon, $3,780 of the $7,250 goal was raised. Parks thought the largest donation was a mistake when she read her email notification: $1,000. It came from the GoFundMe Team who posted in their comment: “We’re excited to be able to Give Back to campaigns that have touched us here at GoFundMe. We wish you the best.”

Even if they do not make their fundraising goal, every donation helps, Parks said. She processes the incoming donations and sends them along to Kovach to buy supplies as the campaign goes along.

“I can tell you right now,” she said of the students, “they wouldn’t be able to do the cooking labs that they’re doing right now without this money that we’ve raised already.”

The GoFundMe campaign: “Cooking in Juneau Middle Schools.”

• Contact Clara Miller at 523-2243 or at clara.miller@juneauempire.com.

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Eighth-grader Taylor Bentley examines her grilled-cheese sandwich during a Life Skills class at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School on Thursday.

Eighth-grader Taylor Bentley examines her grilled-cheese sandwich during a Life Skills class at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School on Thursday.

Life Skills Teacher Jessica Kovach demonstrates how to make a grilled cheese sandwich at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School on Thursday.

Life Skills Teacher Jessica Kovach demonstrates how to make a grilled cheese sandwich at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School on Thursday.

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