The group of budding cooks took a quick huddle to divvy up their work.

Elkhorn Middle seventh-grader Kate Heinzen and her sixth-grade classmate Samantha Griffin quickly decided they would whip up a salsa and mash avocados for guacamole.

Nathan Sila, a seventh-grader at Elkhorn Grandview Middle, and Owen Goehring, a seventh-grader at Elkhorn Valley View Middle, would marinate and cook chicken for tacos. And, the boys volunteered, it was their turn to wash dishes.

“We need garlic powder, onion powder, paprika and ground cumin,” Samantha instructed. “By the way, don’t make it too spicy,” she told the boys as they carefully measured out red pepper flakes for their marinade.

Kate got out of her culinary comfort zone as she scooped out an avocado.

“I’ve never used an avocado before, because in my family we don’t make salsa and guacamole, really,” she said. “It seems like every single day these cutting boards turn into vegetable murder scenes.”

This is what Elkhorn High family and consumer science teacher Laura Feller hoped kids would get out of “Chefs in the Kitchen,” her summer enrichment class at Elkhorn Ridge Middle.

She wanted middle-school-age kids to learn basic knife skills, to figure out how to follow a few simple recipes and learn to work out problems as a team. Along the way, she’s hoping her students become a little more confident in the kitchen and stay open to trying new foods.

The menu for the week included burgers and milkshakes, a fancy mac and cheese with a bechamel, or white sauce, and fruit pizzas. (“I didn’t know what bechamel was,” another teacher confessed.) Feller starts the class with a demo (“If it’s pink, that means it’s not done. We can’t have raw chicken.”) and then turns the kids loose to work at stations with a sink and stove.

“I told them, this is a life skill,” Feller said. “You’re going to cook for yourself in some capacity your entire life.”

Elkhorn kids who enjoy Zumba, healthy eating, the expedition of Lewis and Clark or the mystery genre were in luck this summer.

For the first time, the Elkhorn Public Schools offered a series of niche weeklong summer enrichment for students in grades one through eight during the end of June and this week.

Some school districts, like Westside, have phased out enrichment camps, because of costs and budget cuts, though remedial summer school and a parent-pay “Club 66” option with built-in enrichment activities still exist there. Millard offers a slew of parent-pay summer options throughout June and July, including ACT prep courses for high schoolers, forensic science for middle schoolers and beginner Spanish for first-graders.

Others, like the Omaha Public Schools, hold summer school largely for elementary-age kids who need extra help in math or language arts, though OPS officials said those students get enrichment activities, too, including field trips and hands-on projects.

In some districts, middle and high schoolers also use the summer to retake classes, recover credits or squeeze in extra courses to free up schedules during the school year.

Elkhorn is trying to appeal to parents looking for extra learning opportunities — and no, watching cartoons all day inside the air conditioning doesn’t count.

Elkhorn has always offered remedial classes in the summer, but officials thought the district could do more for the kids who weren’t struggling, said Troy Sidders, the principal of Arbor View Elementary and one of the leaders of the summer enrichment program along with West Bay Elementary Principal Jennifer Coltvet.

Teachers were invited to submit proposals for classes for grades one through eight, and the ideas came pouring in: sewing, technical theater, beaded jewelry 101, introduction to Photoshop, creative writing and the mathematics of board games.

Those topics clearly hit a chord with parents and kids — Sidders said the sign-up website crashed the first night from too much traffic.

Prices for the weeklong classes ranged from $75 for the hourlong classes to more than $200 for three-hour courses. Scholarships were available for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

In the “Got a Problem? We Can Solve It! Girls in STEM” class, students like seventh-graders Sydney Hamilton and Emma Hartnett took on heavy issues, like teen suicide, ocean waste and puppy mills.

Sydney and Emma were working on a suicide prevention app that would include statistics and ways to get help.

Some students doubled up on morning and afternoon classes, like Isabelle Schultz, a fourth-grader at Skyline Elementary. In the morning, she took the Lewis and Clark expedition class, then attended kitchen chem in the afternoon, where she carefully painted a volcano that would later be filled with the classic combo of baking soda and vinegar.

Beth Collingsworth, an eighth-grade science teacher at Elkhorn Middle, leads the kitchen chem class, where kids explore science through hands-on experiments. “I’m not handing out worksheets,” she said.

Instead, kids created their own slime and cooked s’mores in a solar oven while learning about thermal conductors and insulators. Thursday’s lesson revolved around studying pH via cabbage juice, which changes color if it’s mixed with an acid or a base.

One of the students told Collingsworth, “My mom never lets us get messy like this at home,” she said.

Reporter - Education

Erin covers education for The World-Herald. Previously, Erin interned at the Philadelphia Inquirer and spent 4 years as a staff writer at the Times of Trenton, N.J. Follow her on Twitter @eduff88. Phone: 402-444-1210.

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