Wednesday, February 5, 2014
From pregnant to professor: Chef’s perseverance helps her connect to Skyline High students
Barney prepares her students for the real world through school's commercial kitchen.
DALLAS April Barney remembers the nights as a teenager. When most kids are worrying about a crush at school or getting the keys to a car, she had nights wondering where she was going to sleep. Where she was going to do her next load of laundry. After the divorce of her parents, her father lived out of state and her mother suffered from mental health issues. When April Barney moved to Waco from Dallas at the age of 16, she was pregnant and alone.
“I basically ended up on my own when I was about 13,” she recalls. “And from that point I was kind of fending for myself in every way, shape and form. It was crazy. My dad had remarried and didn’t really know what was going on. I didn’t really have much of a relationship with him because my mom, well, that was a bridge that had burned between them and so I didn’t really talk to my dad a whole lot. So I was having really rough time, and I got pregnant when I was 16, and found myself trying to figure out how I was going to survive with a kid. That was basically how I ended up in culinary school.”
Her cadence is conversational, there’s no specter of pain or grief at the details; Barney tells the story as a recollection rather than a drama. Life can take people in a direction they never intended to go, it seems, and that’s exactly how she ended up here at Skyline High School as the chef instructor of the Culinary Arts program, helping culinary-inclined teens to get a chance to forge their own future with a passion that’s developing day-by-day in the large Skyline student kitchen.
But the story of Barney’s progression to the position is as remarkable for its unlikely path as it is for her own perseverance in the process. Her educational accomplishments didn’t end with culinary school – in fact, armed with a laser focus and willpower that skates the edge of sheer stubbornness, upon graduation from culinary school she went on to Baylor University, where she got a degree in Forensic Anthropology – the degree that she thought at the time would allow her to pursue a career in the field to which it applies. Two degrees is no small accomplishment for anyone; Barney did so with a child, while living in government housing, through student loans.
“I got on a system from public assistance as a teen mom, and I kind of used that to get myself through school,” Barney recalls of moving to Waco from Dallas. “So I was on Section 8 housing and food stamps and Medicaid and whatever else I could get, and I ended up using that to go through culinary school first and then eventually to go through Baylor.”
But while her Baylor degree was in Forensic Anthropology, the future had a different plan.
“So when I graduated from Baylor, I was offered an opportunity to go to A&M to get my Ph.D in Forensic Entomology on a fellowship. But I found out that I was pregnant with my now-6-year-old, and so moving to College Station and living on a stipend was not an option with kids while also being pregnant, so I was trying to figure out what my other alternatives were,” she says. “And teaching came up. So I started seeking an alternative teaching certification, but in Special Ed, not in Culinary. Well, it just so happened that the principal here was looking for a culinary teacher, saw my background was like, 'Hey, do you want to do this?' And I had never thought about doing something like that. But I took it, and when I came in, I kind of took off with it and now we’re growing the program out, we’re expanding, and starting an additional hospitality aspect. We’ll have students who are actually getting four years of restaurant management entrepreneurship and the front of the house will know how to work all those things when they leave.”
Barney’s road to Skyline may have had a few more twists and turns that she might have predicted, but now that she’s there, she’s finding her future a little more focused. By constantly working with the kids who attend this culinary magnets school and also working to expand the program, she’s found a purpose that extends well beyond the school’s own campus. She will work in professional kitchens around Dallas in order to see which might fit students hoping to begin a career in the upcoming years. But they won’t be entering without analogous experience: It is already a commercial-style kitchen she’s running at the school. Her students prepare lunch twice a week for the Raider Cafe, with a five-page menu that covers everything from shrimp & grits to white pizza, Cuban sandwiches and chicken & waffles. It’s a proven process for education thus far, with Barney’s former students making it into kitchens such as FT33 and Mot Hai Ba.
“I’ve had kids spread out all over Dallas. Last year, I had some point where I ran out of kids to help place in restaurants. The thing is, I tell them, 'I’ll give you as many references as I can until you screw it up.' Because it’s my reputation – and this program’s reputation – on the line, too. And one of the reasons I work around town, like I do and work with all the chefs I do is because I want to get a feel for those kitchens and I want to get a feel for working with that chef so when they do have an opening or they do need somebody, I know what kids to send there to work in that kitchen and they’re not going to melt.”
It’s about relating to them, and it’s a talent acquired maybe through natural abilities or through certain experiences. Barney has no lack of the former and an abundance of the latter. She’s not soft on the students in the kitchen, and creates a similar environment they might find in a commercial kitchen. But it’s not exactly an employer/employee relationship, either. Barney’s been through enough to know when a teenager needs help, and not necessarily just in the kitchen. She encourages and helps to grow her students in a general respect of character, not just culinary technique.
“They know when you’re speaking from experience and what you’re saying to them is something that you’ve actually been through – whether it’s in a kitchen or just in life. I don’t know how to explain it; I don’t know if I would call it a connection or not, but it’s definitely a level of sincerity that you just have because you get it. You’ve been there, and you get it,” she says.
“You know, it’s really weird, but I never thought that I would end up teaching. That was the furthest thing from my mind. But when I landed here I kind of realized that this is where I was supposed to be. And I think … I think I was supposed to go through the things that I did to kind of come full circle and help other kids. I really believe that.”
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