Serving Education

Catholic High uses program, new cafeteria to reach students

By Bill Dries

The last time Memphis Catholic High School had a kitchen that served hot meals, the school’s mascot was a terrier and it was an all boys school.

Memphis Catholic High School president and principal James Pohlman, center, attends a “grand reopening” breakfast held for donors and supporters of the school. The cafeteria is reopening after being closed for 40 years to better serve the needs of the school’s students. “It’s a win for everybody,” said Pohlman. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Since the 1970-1971 school year, it’s been reheated food, vending machines and brown bags.

That changed this week with the return of a kitchen and hot meals to the Midtown school.

The high school itself has had several transformations in the last 40 years as well.

“Our students were becoming more and more middle- to lower-income classes,” said principal Jim Pohlman of the change in the last five years.

The Education That Works program began five years ago, matching the 145 high school students at Catholic with a company sponsor. Each student works or interns five days a month with the sponsoring firm, and the money from their work goes toward their tuition.

The freshman class at Catholic High this school year was 80 percent larger than last year, which means the ETW program needs more workplace sponsors.

Pohlman is touting a five-year improvement in the number of Catholic High graduates who go to college. When ETW began, it was 25 percent. Now it is 100 percent.

Dani Ray Barton, development director for Catholic High and ETW for the last five years, constantly has to explain that the school is private but 70 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

“It’s one of those things that you battle with from day to day. Once we sit down and tell people our message and our mission then it becomes clear to them why we are here,” she said.

“It’s just another step in terms of what we’re trying to do in urban education. It’s all about giving these kids the tools they need in the classroom and on the job.”

It took four years to raise the money, draw up the plans and open the kitchen to serve the scrambled eggs, sausage and biscuits that a group of 30 adults dined on Wednesday morning. The students started the week with the hot meals.

Dr. Mary McDonald, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Memphis, said it began with a grant from a foundation in The Netherlands. Someone with the foundation heard McDonald speak at a Washington conference about the diocesan Jubilee Schools program.

From there, other private donors committed to the project of bringing back chicken Alfredo and other dishes as well as the buffet line.

“This is more like a cafeteria at a workplace. They serve themselves,” Pohlman said. “They go through the line. They clean up their dishes. It’s like a normal day for them at work.”

The cafeteria was a pay-as-you-go project for the school system that was more complicated than it seemed at the beginning. There was initially hope there might be enough left of the old kitchen to help. But McDonald said it soon became apparent the project would have to start from the ground up.

“This was like renovating a very old house. We had to bring the kitchen up to code,” McDonald said. “We basically gutted the room that had been the kitchen in the past and started from scratch. We did it in four different phases so we could pay as we go.”

McDonald said the school’s goal is not just to prepare Catholic High students for the workplace and college, but to encourage the graduates to remain in Memphis once they complete their education.