Every South-Western district school has a cafeteria, but the one at its Career Academy is unlike any other.
The Jazz Street Cafe is a student-run restaurant open from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.
"Our students do everything, from coming up with the menus to preparing the food, serving as waiters and greeting customers when they arrive," said Sharon Pallas, the culinary instructor at the career academy.
"They are gaining real-life restaurant skills that will help them as they pursue a career or further their culinary education," she said.
About 39 juniors and seniors are participating this year in the academy's culinary program, Pallas said.
The program uses ProStart, an industry-driven high school curriculum developed by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.
Students who complete the ProStart program are awarded an industry-recognized certificate of achievement. They earn the certificate by passing two national exams, demonstrating a mastery of foundational skills and working 400 mentored hours.
"So it's a lot more than just cooking in the kitchen," Pallas said.
Through the career academy's culinary program, students interested in a restaurant career are able to get much more hands-on training then they could as an entry-level employee at a restaurant, she said.
"And once they start working at a restaurant or go to a culinary school, they have a definite leg up over other students," Pallas said.
Career academy students also go through the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe Food Safety Training Program, she said.
The students take their regular high school courses at the academy as well. They are able to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at their home school.
Junior Karla Hernandez said she enjoys working in the Jazz Street Cafe with other students who share her interest in the culinary arts.
"I worked in a restaurant over the summer and I really found it was a lot of fun," she said. "I think I like helping and serving people, which is what restaurants are all about."
Hernandez said she would like to open her own restaurant someday.
While Hernandez said she likes working in the front of the cafe the most, junior Joe Crago likes working in the kitchen.
"I love to cook," he said. "I guess it started when I used to come home from school and tried fixing things to eat. I liked trying to do more than just fix a sandwich."
Planning and cooking a dish is a creative act, Crago said, just like painting or making music.
Pallas said it's fun for her to work with the students.
"They are so enthusiastic and full of ideas," she said. "I love to see what ideas they come up with for our buffets. Sometimes I have to guide them a bit toward what's realistic, because they think anything's possible."
Previous buffet specials have included Asian dishes, soul food, Cajun items and a picnic lunch.
Upcoming buffets are a pig roast April 5, a senior spotlight buffet April 26 and fair favorites May 3, the cafe's closing day.
On other Thursdays and Fridays, the cafe serves a regular menu that includes appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, desserts and entrees, including beef stroganoff and fried chicken. The students even make their own potato chips.
The public is invited to stop by the Jazz Street Cafe for lunch, Pallas said.
The menu lists prices for appetizers as $4.95 and $3.95; soups, $2 or $3; salads and sandwiches, $5.95; entrees, $6.95; and desserts, $3.95.