Preparing kids for the future

A teenager scooping sauce into a measuring cup surrounded by ingredients for cooking.
Mellon eighth-grader Jayden Mercher measures out tomato puree for his group’s pasta sauce during the food lab portion of their family and consumer science (FCS) class.


og your memory back to your middle school years. Was home economics included on your schedule? Back in the day, the class likely taught you how to bake cookies, iron a collared shirt or stitch up a rip in a pillow. 

Mt. Lebanon School District’s family and consumer science (FCS) program takes Home Ec to a new level. Though managing finances, cooking and handling household tasks may seem to be common sense, they’re not. Acquiring these life skills adds a critical element to our kids’ education. Learning household management contributes to our children ultimately growing up knowing how to function with the daily demands of real life.

a teacher checking in on students cooking in a home ec class.
Jordaan checks on the progress of students Joseph Cloherty, William Varholla, and Graham Keen while the boys follow the recipe to make pasta sauce and pasta dough.

The district implements this curriculum starting in seventh grade. The curriculum turns into an elective option at the high school level. 

If you roam the halls of Mellon or Jefferson middle schools, you may pass by a classroom with kitchens, often spreading the scent of irresistible baked goods down the hallway. Catherine Jordaan teaches FCS at Mellon, and Chrissa Sullivan teaches the course at Jefferson. 

Jordaan graduated from IUP with a degree in family and consumer sciences. She first considered pursuing biology as a career, but the FCS bug burrowed into her. “I became fascinated with nutrition. Most people say, ‘This tastes good’ and you eat that food. I began to think about how much food affects you … I want to instill the idea into kids that health isn’t just about calorie counting or what the scale displays.” 

Sullivan has been teaching FCS at Jefferson for 11 years. “Family and consumer science prepares students for the big test—life,” she said. 

The FCS class lasts one quarter in seventh and eighth grades, although eighth-graders can take the class for a full year. In this short timeframe, the instructors cover an array of topics. The non-traditional structure leaves out textbooks and regular tests, and revolves around relevant real-world projects.

The seventh-graders start with an introduction to consumerism and financial management, navigating the process of buying something from concept to completing a purchase. This includes reviewing consumer rights, reading labels and noting safety precautions, such as avoiding applying hand sanitizer to an infant. The middle-schoolers learn to review products (the cheapest isn’t always the best and user reviews can be quite handy!) They go as far as to complete an assignment on sending a complaint letter when dissatisfied with a product.

Another critical topic revolves around finances. Jordaan assigns her students to various income levels and educational backgrounds and tasks them with budgeting and managing their theoretical finances. Someone assigned to a high school education with an entry-level career may not be parking their brand-new Mercedes in their driveway right away. Jordaan augments the unit with lessons about credit and debit, if time allows.

The eighth-grade class spends its time covering a topic everyone can appreciate—food. The class includes everything from kitchen equipment and safety to sanitation and nutrition. Students face the only test they will ever take in FCS, as they must demonstrate an understanding of those basics before they can practice their skills in real-life food preparation in the classroom’s kitchens. 

A teacher explaining steps of a recipe to students holding a can of tomato sauce.
Mellon FCS teacher Catherine Jordaan explains to her students the steps they will take for making pasta sauce.

“I stress the importance of being present and mindful in the kitchen,” Sullivan said. “You can’t be on your phone when you’re cooking.”

All the other grading involves point values and projects. Preparing and cooking a full three-course meal for the family ends up being a class favorite each year.

With food comes nutrition. Jordaan and Sullivan spend time focusing on the nutrients we put into our bodies. 

a student cutting an onion surrounded by ingredients for cooking with other students in the background.
Safety around knives and appliances is the first lesson.

“We make 262 food decisions a day,” Sullivan said. “It’s important to instill good habits early.” 

If an eighth-grader wants to take their interest in FCS a step further, the schools offer a year-round elective option. Topics include food preparation, entrepreneurship, interior design and sewing. One of the most engaging segments of the year runs through a “Shark Tank” project. Students come up with an original product and execute it to the point of selling goods and raising money for charity.

Sullivan says the skills her students learn in FCS translate to other areas. “I’ve gotten calls from my students who are now in high school, telling me the resume we created got them hired!”

Some adults may  wonder what happened to the good old home ec classes they remember as they dig up their battered pillow project from 20 years ago. But the concept has transformed into the FCS curriculum students will find in the Mt. Lebanon middle schools.

“It’s all about preparing for your life,” Jordaan said.


Photos by John Schisler