Twenty years ago, home economics class often meant making heart-shaped pillows and lemon pound cake while a teacher lectured about the mysteries of bobbins and bundt pans.
But Peg Dear, a home ec teacher at Harper's Choice Middle School in Columbia, has new lessons for today's students, such as: What to do when you're 11 years old, cooking dinner while both parents are at work, and you slice your finger. Or making sure your toddler sister doesn't fall down the stairs while you baby-sit. Or maybe how foods advertised as "No cholesterol" aren't necessarily fat-free.
"We have children basically raising themselves," Dear said. "We're trying to help them do that safely."
Such changes have swept home ec classes across the country in the last decade, especially in the last several years, as teachers work to shed the field's apron-strings image for good.
To stay relevant, home ec in Washington area middle and high schools has evolved from a prep class for future homemakers into a survival course for latchkey children and a way to get teenagers to think about careers. While today's home ec students are still learning how to prevent entire loads of laundry from coming out pink, they also are drafting their resumes and discussing time management.
"We want to show that we're not just cooking and sewing anymore," said Stephanie Price, coordinator of the Work and Family Studies program for Fairfax County schools. "We teach students about work and family. You can't teach students to be good workers if they don't have strong families."
Perhaps no other class has had to adapt so much to remain pertinent and, in some schools, even to survive. Why should children spend valuable class time learning how to follow recipes, some parents ask, when they must prepare for an increasingly competitive and technological world equipped with microwave ovens?
Some schools in the Washington area and nationwide have dropped home ec altogether. And so many colleges have abolished home economics degrees that school systems across the region say they find it difficult to find home ec teachers. Starting with the class of 1997, home ec courses no longer are counted toward Maryland graduation requirements, while a technology course has become a new requirement.
In Howard County, Dear and other home ec teachers worry their classes soon will be made an elective course in middle schools, particularly given the vocal demands of some parents for more time on "academic" subjects such as reading and foreign languages. Four of Howard's 10 high schools have eliminated home ec in the last 20 years. For now, however, home ec remains a requirement for all middle school students, boys and girls alike.
Teachers such as Ann DeLacy say home ec is essential, now more than ever. Almost every child in the home ec classes at Owen Brown Middle School in Columbia comes from a single-parent family or a home where both parents work, DeLacy said. About 60 percent of the students, she said, have parents who work two or more jobs.
"I teach them survival skills," DeLacy said, "how to relate in their families. . . . They're never going to get this anywhere else."
Because many children must help raise younger siblings while their parents work, many middle school home ec classes teach child development, a lesson once reserved for high school students training to be day-care workers.
Cindy Dupski recently taught her seventh-grade home ec class at Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City how to read to young children. Each seventh-grader picked out a book to read to a kindergarten student at neighboring Hollifield Station Elementary on an upcoming field trip.
"You need to make the questions very simple and use the name of the character in the book over and over," Dupski reminded the class. "Remember, you're dealing with 4-year-olds."
"What if they don't want to answer any of the questions?" asked 12-year-old Jeremy Reardon, who said he reads to his 5-year-old sister.
"Then you answer for them," Dupski said. "You help them along."
All this is not to say old-fashioned "stitching and stirring" have gone completely by the wayside. Rows of identical miniature kitchens still line the walls of most home ec classrooms, and sewing machines still get a workout.
Helen Marsolais, a home ec teacher at Hammond Middle School in Laurel, said parents protested when she suggested dropping sewing from the eighth-grade curriculum. One of her seventh-grade students, 12-year-old Chris Tippett, said he sometimes found sewing pillows a "waste of time," though he acknowledged it could come in handy for mending clothes. "If you don't get married, you'll know how to fix things," he said.
Still, some home ec teachers say they believe the field remains vulnerable to cuts because, although they have updated the curriculum, they often have not made a point of touting its importance.
Many say they now emphasize to students, who in turn may tell their parents, how they use their math skills in building a household budget or learn chemistry when they study how a recipe's ingredients interact.
In Montgomery County, home ec teachers explain to middle school students how their home ec lessons help them practice skills that they will need to score well on state standardized tests.
"We tell them this is where the math and science becomes real life," said Kristine Leary, acting home ec coordinator for Montgomery schools. "We make it real clear. We help kids to see the connections."
In Montgomery high schools, cooking and baking classes incorporate science. A course once called "Baking and Creative Foods" can be taken as a science credit called "Food Science." Students learn the chemistry behind cooking, Leary said.
With such changes, Leary said, "We're marketing and making sure people really know what's going on" in home ec classes.
Virginia schools shed the term "home economics" three years ago for "work and family studies." Some Maryland school systems, including Prince George's County schools, have adopted the 3-year-old national term for the field, "family and consumer sciences." District schools still use "home economics."
In response to Howard parents' push for more "academic time" in middle schools, the county's home ec curriculum will be revamped for the next school year, said Marilyn Nobles, who coordinates home ec courses for Howard schools.
"We're looking at how to insert reading and writing and math skills into our home ec program," Nobles said. "They've always been there, but we're going to key it into our curriculum."
During a recent lesson in Harper's Choice Middle School's seventh-grade child development and baby-sitting unit, Dear discussed how quickly infants grow.
"Babies triple their weight in the first year," Dear told the class. "If a baby weighed seven pounds at birth, how much do they weigh after one year?"
"Twenty-one!" someone shouted.
"Right," Dear said. "That's math." CAPTION: At Owen Brown Middle School in Columbia, from left to right, Grace Pattison, an unidentified student, Monica Bachelor, Tavia Butler, Ariel Moore and Jennifer Bryan run a school post office as part of their home economics class. CAPTION: Portia Obeng holds camera during the making of a video by Owen Brown home ec students Carlos Ray, left, Matt Ram, David Price, Daniel Stapleton and Mathew Saylor. In Howard County, home ec is a requirement for all students.