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Pizza oven offers ingredients for higher graduation rate
North Bend High School junior Sheena Fluetsch prepares a pizza for the school’s mobile wood-fired pizza oven last month. The oven is the signature attraction of a culinary program that is helping keep students in school. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Pizza draws the teenagers, but the North Bend High School students are staying for the education.
When culinary teacher Frank Murphy first proposed spending $30,000 on a mobile, wood-fired pizza oven, administrators scarcely believed their ears. It was a big-ticket purchase, an unheard-of culinary program accessory.
But Murphy had earned the school’s trust. His class’s successful catering business not only paid its own expenses, it also provided funding support for other school programs.
More importantly, Murphy’s program gave his southern Oregon coast students, some on the verge of dropping out, a reason to come to school. It also created a bridge to local family-wage jobs.
The district bought the oven nearly four years ago. Even Murphy has been surprised at how popular it has been with students.
“I knew it would make money, but it got these kids who felt like they had nowhere to be and now they had somewhere to be,” Murphy said.
The purchase came as North Bend began expanding its career and technical education offerings and enlisting more students from diverse backgrounds. In recent years, Oregon education improvement efforts have pushed in the same direction. Measure 98, passed in 2016, offers grants for CTE programs, and grant money from the 2019 Student Success Act is contingent on supporting historically underserved student groups.
Principal Darrell Johnston said North Bend’s efforts are paying off. The CTE classes are now as diverse as the student body and the North Bend High School graduation rate is climbing. Students who took three or more aligned CTE classes had a 91% graduation rate for 2017-18, compared with an 88% school average.
Murphy’s program saw among the largest enrollment increases, including students who dropped out and returned to school just to be in his class.
“There’s no question he is moving the dial,” Johnston said.
North Bend senior Noah Halzel said the culinary program’s hands-on learning is the big reason he comes to school. In middle school, he pretended to be sick a lot. That stopped after he entered the culinary program freshman year.
Emily Bramhall, a 2017 graduate, credits Murphy and his class for paving the path to her job at The Mill Casino bakery.
“I don’t think I would be the person I am today if I didn’t have his class,” she said. “He shaped me in a lot of different ways.”
Murphy, a trained chef from Ireland, had worked in a Florida culinary school before moving to North Bend in 1996. A little over eight years ago, he started teaching at the high school.
Soon after, Murphy started a classroom-based catering business. Students bid for jobs and staff the events. Catering customers pay the high school, which then directs the money to a class account for supplies and other classroom needs. The class decides menus, prepares the food and makes business decisions, such as investing in new equipment.
The class caters luncheons, festivals and school functions. They also do fundraisers and charity work. They recently took their pizza oven to a homeless shelter to make meals.
Realizing that after-school involvement often sets apart high-achieving students from students who fail to graduate, Murphy invites the whole school to help with catering functions, even if they are not in the class.
“Lots of kids don’t get involved in a club or sport,” he said. “They need a home.”
With 14 hours of volunteer service, students earn a coveted personalized catering jacket.
Murphy has six periods a day, serving about 200 students a semester in the 750-student school. He gives students a place to go and meaningful work to do. He said students who haven’t had a lot of successes in life light up when they get a smile or a pat on the back for something they created.
The pizza oven generates a lot of smiles.
The dome-shaped oven is 48 inches in diameter and sits on a 13-foot trailer. The single-axle trailer and oven weigh about 5,000 pounds before adding cooking supplies to the storage compartments.
Although the oven is made of a special concrete that can withstand frequent heating and cooling as well as bumping down the highway, its design is not much different from ovens used 3,000 years ago.
Wood burning inside the dome heats it above 800 degrees. It can cook a distinctly flavorful pizza in about 90 seconds, but the class also uses it to cook breads and other dishes.
Murphy said the district gives his program about $2,000 a year but his operating costs are more than $20,000. Catering makes up the difference, and the pizza oven is a profit leader. Murphy said a 10-inch pizza that sells for $10 costs about 75 cents to make.
Some of the profits are plowed back into the program, such as renovating the classroom. They bought a truck to haul the oven and a chain saw so they could cut their own wood. They bought a “Blazing Bulldogs Wood Fired Pizza” canopy for their stand.
The culinary class also gives to its school, buying equipment for other departments.
Band director Amber Yester said microphones the culinary class bought for the jazz choir gave them a more professional performing experience. Murphy also loaned the pizza oven and arranged student staffing for a fundraiser for a music department trip.
For North Bend’s last home football game this year, about 20 students operated the fryers, grills and oven at the class’s food stands. Only about half were enrolled in one of Murphy’s classes. Some students pitched in because it looked fun; others had friends in the class or had taken one of Murphy’s classes before.
Students say working with the pizza oven is the best.
Murphy hovers around, pitching in or reminding younger students to act professionally, but the students run the show. They check the equipment, take the orders, make the food and mollify customers when they make mistakes.
“No cussing,” a student reminds another when he drops a pizza on the ground.
Although he treats it like a business, Murphy doesn’t lose sight of the main mission. Production slows down if a student needs to learn how to do something better.
“We’re here to teach,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA