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Helping Jackson-Olin HS students get ahead in food service industry

Belinda Brooks (Provided photo)

By Belinda Sutton Brooks

Special to The Times

Belinda Brooks (Provided photo)
Belinda Brooks (Provided photo)

With the spring semester of high school underway, seniors across the state are getting ready to make one of the most important decisions of their life: what comes next. Alabama has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, but only 63 percent of our grads are going to a university or community college next fall. More and more young people are choosing to enter the workforce directly after high school. Luckily for my students in the ProStart program, we offer exactly the tools and skills they need to kick-start successful and fulfilling careers.

The National Restaurant Association’s ProStart program is a two-part curriculum for high school students who want to get ahead in the restaurant and food service industry. The program focuses on the major components necessary to working in, managing, and even owning or operating a restaurant. From business management to culinary and service practices, ProStart provides hands-on experience that translates directly into a toolkit for professional success.

I’ve been teaching ProStart courses at Jackson-Olin High School in Birmingham since 1985, when I helped reboot the Alabama program. I started my career in a different field — I taught economics and ran a fashion merchandizing business — but after training with the ProStart Summer Institute, I was inspired by the strong work ethic of the restaurant professionals I met, and by the meaningful impact the program had on my students and myself. At the time, the brother of one of my students worked at McDonald’s. He showed me the ropes when I volunteered there for a summer, and even visited the school to examine the stations and materials we were using for ProStart classes, offering his professional advice to keep them up to snuff.

Just as with any career, the more my students put into the ProStart program, the more they gain. One of my first students, a 1985 graduate, transformed before my eyes while taking the class. He was a stereotypical “class clown,” but surprised everyone (even his mother!) with the hard work and determination that he poured into his restaurant training. Today, he’s the regional manager for Milo’s Hamburgers — and he remains a part of the ProStart family. He frequently visits Jackson-Olin to help with the Workplace Learning classes, and hires other promising young students like himself.

The program is unique in that it offers high school students real professional experience, hands them opportunities for paid work during (and beyond) high school, and connects them to a network of America’s most relied-on professionals. Students who graduate the program find opportunity and growth with any of the 14 million jobs that the restaurant industry offers to Americans of all ages and experience levels. Even students who don’t plan on working in the restaurant industry benefit from the program. Those who successfully complete the course earn a Certificate of Achievement and some college credit, which they can apply to continuing their education. And even without the certificate, ProStart students leave high school with higher confidence, pride in their work, and critical professional skills that they can carry with them throughout their careers.

As students face exams and applications and extravagant “prom-posals” this semester, the question of what comes next can be one of the most stressful parts of the spring. There is no syllabus for the rest of your life. Whether my students are considering a restaurant career, or need a steady income on the way to their next dream, or have absolutely no idea what comes next, they know that the lessons they learn in the ProStart classroom will be an asset for the rest of their lives. We are proud of our seniors and ready to welcome the next class of eager, ready-to-learn young adults to our classroom: enrollment in ProStart is already open for next fall!

Belinda Sutton Brooks is Culinary Arts Teacher/Coordinator P.D. Jackson Olin High School.