News Column

Home ec turns 100: Some say basic skills missing in current classes

June 22, 2014

By Ginna Parsons, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo

June 22--TUPELO -- Some students know instinctively in seventh grade what their college major needs to be.

For Leslie Hobson, 48, it was home economics.

She took home ec in both middle school and high school in Tupelo before going on to the University of Mississippi, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in home economics with a major in interior design and a minor in business.

Today, Hobson has her own design business and does consulting work for real estate agents.

"I knew I liked it and I made good grades in it, but I know home ec has changed majorly since I was there," she said. "When I took home ec at the middle school, I remember us having to do a board where we had to create a 'dream room' with samples of wallpaper, fabrics, paint and carpets. They judged it and I won. Looking back, I should have realized this was where I belonged."

One hundred years ago, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 introduced home economics to extension programs in the U.S. as a way to improve the quality of home life. The instruction included cooking, clothing, home furnishings and family relations.

Three years later, the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 provided funds to support the teaching of home economics in secondary schools. Students were taught how to eat better, dress well, care for their homes and spend money wisely.

Today, home economics is called family and consumer sciences. It's still taught in high schools, colleges and universities, but some of the original goals have fallen by the wayside.

"They're missing basic skills, like sewing," said Sylvia Clark, a family and consumer sciences extension associate for Mississippi State University. "They get in here and they want to be a designer, but they can't sew because sewing isn't offered in high school anymore. So they're trying to catch up. Not only are they missing basic sewing skills, they're also missing financial management and preparing for marriage. They don't know how to cook. Home ec was an outstanding program and, frankly, it's a shame that it has been taken out of schools."

Mississippi began offering home economics courses in the 1920s, said Patrice Guilfoyle, director of communications for the Mississippi Department of Education. In the mid-1990s, the state made the switch from home ec to family and consumer sciences.

The four FCS classes offered in Mississippi public schools now are Family Dynamics, which focuses on relationships and individual and family growth; Nutrition and Wellness, which focuses on meal planning, exercise, diet and healthy food choices; Child Development, which focuses on behavior guidance, child growth and considerations for parenthood; and Resource Management, which focuses on personal finances, the role of the consumer and decision-making skills.

"Each district must offer the family and consumer science course Family Dynamics," Guilfoyle said. "All other FCS classes can be offered at each district's discretion."

The Resource Management class is new to the fall curriculum for Mississippi schools. It replaces Personal Development, which focused on personal choices, developing healthy relationships and managing social skills.

"That one is being phased out," said Evet Topp, director of Career Technical Education at Tupelo High School. "And it was, by far, our most popular one. The state department moves courses off the offerings and replaces them with something else that's more relevant. We have nothing to do with those choices at the local level."

Culinary arts offered

THS also offers an Occupational Program, which includes culinary arts, early childhood education, marketing and economics, and career pathway experience (which used to be called co-op).

"Our culinary arts program is so huge we can't even take all the students that want it," Topp said. "We have 60 to 64 students in that class and 175 that want to get in."

In culinary arts, students receive hands-on experience that will prepare them for employment or continuing education in the food service industry.

But those aren't the same types of skills that students learned in a home economics cooking class, which might have included planning a week's worth of meals, budgeting for those meals, and cooking those meals by combining foods that were nutritious and pleasing to the eye.

"When I started teaching, Tupelo High was where the middle school is today and the classes were Home Ec 1, 2 and 3," said Montine Posey, who taught at THS for 32 years. "They were yearlong classes and the work got more difficult as you went along. When I started in 1968, the food lab had five completely and fully equipped kitchens. When we moved to the new campus, there were two fully equipped kitchens. When I retired in 2000, the classes had moved into the technology building and the kitchen was a portable food prep station with an overhead mirror. When I started, we had 12 sewing machines in the classroom. When I finished, there were no more sewing machines. But we had 17 computers."

Posey said she believes technology is the reason for the de-emphasis on cooking and sewing.

"I think the thinking was that people were using the microwave to cook and buying their clothes in stores because it was cheaper to do so," she said.

But that's not all that's missing in the classroom today, Posey said.

"In home ec, we emphasized manners and things like formal table settings," she said. "Now, people don't even know how to place the silverware anymore because they eat at fast-food places. Manners have really gone to the birds. Etiquette is lacking. But it's important to know it. You will need to know it when you go to interview for a job and you're out at a restaurant. We also taught fundraising and how to give back to the community. All the niceties have fallen away."

Stitching and stewing

Lynda Wildmon, 73, recalled the rigorous course load she had to take when she was a home economics major at what is now called Mississippi University for Women in Columbus.

"It was very strict," she said. "People think it was just stitching and stewing, but we had to have eight hours of chemistry, four hours of bacteriology and a nutrition class with a lab. In clothing, we had to learn to tailor a suit or a coat with a lining. I majored in home ec because I knew I could use it every day in some way for my family."

Wildmon ended up being a teacher, and taught life skills to seventh-graders and traditional home economics to eighth-graders at Milam Junior High from 1978 to 1989. While Wildmon was teaching at Milam, the school burned.

"The architect they hired afterward met with the teachers," she said. "He liked home ec and he gave us three rooms. We had a huge lab with four kitchen units and across the hall was a clothing lab with about 10 sewing machines. The thing about it was the girls loved it. They always wanted to get on to their projects."

In the kitchen, she taught things like nutrition, international cuisine and baking.

"Anybody can cook if you can do two things: read a recipe and understand it, and measure. Home ec taught you those things," Wildmon said.

"In the eighth-grade class, we did things like decorate cupcakes and cookies and make miniature pizzas and I taught about comparative shopping," she said. "We taught how to set a table, the different serving dishes used, the difference between china and earthenware."

She taught her students how to sew on a piece of notebook paper without thread.

"That's how they learned because they didn't know which side of the sewing machine to sit down on," she said. "We taught important, basic life skills that everyone needs. We need home ec now more than ever, with more mothers working outside the home and with more single-parent homes. Technology moved in and pushed home ec out, even though I thought we were keeping up with the times pretty good."

Going back in time

John-Grady Taylor, director of Career and Technical Education for Tishomingo County Schools, said he believes a lack of interest is what caused the demise of traditional home economics classes.

"Old home ec went hand-in-hand with the old ag program," he said. "I'm an old ag teacher and it was to the point where the boys took ag and the girls took home ec. It was a full-credit course. Enrollment kept going down, down, down, so MDE decided to offer Family Dynamics as a half-credit course, and enrollment picked up. We have to keep relevant for what's going on today. Old home ec and sewing was waning and in order to stay relevant, MDE moved to the new curriculum."

Tishomingo County offers the same culinary arts program at its two high schools that THS uses.

"We have a pretty high enrollment in it," he said. "And it has a good diversity of young men and women. It's not just the girls anymore."

Now that cooking and financial management have managed to creep back into school curricula, maybe sewing isn't too far behind.

"We noticed a trend at extension of people being interested in a return to sewing skills -- old-timey skills -- as the recession deepened," said Clark, 60. "A lot of young women are showing interest. Pinterest and social media and TV programs might be spurring this. Young mothers want to sew for their children, and once they get the bug they want to learn more. Extension fills the gap -- the things that schools aren't teaching anymore. And that's why extension was started in the first place -- to bring research-based information to the common consumer."

That irony is not lost on Clark, who noted that extension is celebrating 100 years this year.

"It's interesting to see that we're going back in time to pick up these skills," she said. "Everything old is new again."


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