By ERIN DUFFY
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ Forty years ago, when Cheryl Tschetter started teaching at what was then McMillan Junior High, boys were for the first time allowed to take home economics and girls could enroll in shop class.
Her home ec focus was decidedly domestic: She taught cake decorating, child care and sewing.
Over the years, home ec was rebranded as “family and consumer sciences.” Middle and high school classes shifted to include more career exploration, personal finance, family dynamics and nutrition, especially as childhood obesity rates and the popularity of processed foods grew, the Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/1NsI1K2) reported.
Even as the field evolved, Tschetter said her classes focused on teaching kids the practical skills they need but might not learn at home: how to replace a shirt button, cook a healthy meal, unscrew a doorknob and write a check. (Tschetter admits that the check-writing part might need an update.)
“Everybody, I don’t care who you are, is going to have a home of some kind,” she said. “I just found it a very practical area in which to teach. And it was more of a `fun’ kind of class for kids.”
After four decades at what’s now called McMillan Magnet Center, Tschetter, 65, is retiring.
She’s leaving as schools across Nebraska and Iowa and much of the country report a shortage of family and consumer sciences teachers to lead food, fashion and personal finance classes. Baby boomer teachers are retiring, and today’s prospective teachers are often more apt to pick broader majors such as elementary education or English.
During her 40 years at McMillan, Tschetter had just one student teacher shadow her.
“There’s really a huge shortage,” said Allison Kreifels, a former family and consumer sciences teacher in Wahoo who now works for the Nebraska Department of Education as a career field specialist. “I have administrators calling me, saying `We need another FCS teacher.’ I say, be thankful you have one.”
Tschetter, an avid sewer and quilter, entered the field after struggling to figure out a career path as a college student. A counselor sat her down and asked point-blank: “Cheryl, what are you good at?”
“I said I really enjoyed all the home ec kinds of things, and she said, `Have you ever thought of teaching that?’?” Tschetter said. “I said, you know, I haven’t, but that was just the little spark I needed.”
Tschetter was hired to teach at McMillan in 1975. She said she never considered leaving the school. She liked her co-workers and principals and found middle school students to be funny, needy, curious button-pushers who kept her on her toes.
For many of her students, her classes were a treat: a fun, hands-on elective that provided a little escape from algebra or grammar.
That doesn’t mean those classes revolved solely around baking cookies and stealing swipes of frosting. Tschetter taught nutrition and food safety, independent living skills and the importance of following directions.
“I still stress that to my kids today,” she said. “If you don’t learn anything else this semester, I hope you learn two things: how to be a better listener and how to follow directions. Those are just two life skills that are so important.”
The curriculum changed rapidly about 12 years ago when McMillan installed a tech and living lab, a trend among larger school districts that could squeeze more kids into the larger rooms. Classes became more career-focused, as students used computer-based tutorials, called modules, to explore careers. If a student liked the clothing construction module, Tschetter might encourage him or her to take a fashion class in high school.
Besides careers, students learned other skills, including how to do laundry, care for a mannequin “baby” and dismantle and put back together a kitchen sink. Tschetter revealed _ to the dismay of students _ how many calories are in their favorite fast-food fries and taught them how to sew a pillow and use a band saw and a drill press to create miniature race cars.
Tschetter knows she’s leaving at a tough time for her field.
The Omaha Public Schools are weighing major changes to career education and family and consumer sciences classes at the high school level, including one option that would phase out fashion and most food classes. Teachers and former students have shown up to school board meetings to protest, arguing that those classes are popular electives that teach students valuable, hands-on skills.
Nationwide, student enrollment has declined from the home ec heyday of the 1950s, but family and consumer sciences teachers are still in demand in Nebraska and Iowa.
“We’re dying to get more students,” said Pam White, the dean of the College of Human Sciences at Iowa State University, which has a well-regarded family and consumer sciences program. “(Enrollment has) grown and almost doubled in the last couple of years. We’re thrilled about that, but we have the capacity to take on more students, and we can place many more.”
The family and consumer sciences teachers there have about a 100 percent placement rate, and most land jobs before they even cross the stage at graduation, White said. In Iowa, some skills that fall under the family and consumer sciences umbrella, like financial literacy, are part of the Iowa Common Core state standards.
There were 57 openings this spring in Nebraska for family and consumer sciences teachers, similar to numbers from the last three or four years. Those numbers are projected to stay steady for the next five to 10 years.
Some positions, including several in northeast Nebraska, are still not filled, said Kreifels, of the Nebraska Department of Education. Schools typically see a low number of applicants for open jobs and might turn to distance learning or ask a teacher to take over a class outside of his or her specialty area if a replacement can’t be found.
“If a school gets five applicants for family and consumer sciences, that’s a success,” she said.
Wayne State College is actively recruiting students to sign up for its family and consumer sciences concentration and field endorsement, according to Judy Lindberg, a family and consumer sciences professor and head of the technology and applied science department. While she’s heard colleagues still teasingly refer to the field as “stitch and stew,” students are increasingly interested in early childhood development and teaching nutrition, budget management and healthy food preparation, she said.
Colleges and high schools also need to do a better job marketing teaching programs to prospective students who might not realize that the family and consumer sciences field offers viable careers, Kreifels said.
“What we’re seeing now is really a focus on the career education aspect,” she said. “We’re not just teaching sewing, we’re teaching finances and textiles, why this fabric reacts the way it does. We’re not teaching cake decorating, we’re teaching how do we make this cake healthier for someone with diabetes.”