Nov. 17, 2004 - In the center of Karen Penazek's class is a large silver mixing bowl, known to her students as the "Community Bowl."

Whenever a student has a question, any question, about life, they can anonymously drop a card with their query scrawled across it into the bowl and hope for an answer from the class.

"Does sex always hurt?" one student recently asked.

Another sought the answer to: "Is it OK for my dad to hit me?"

Penazek said the questions are almost always candid and discussion is not always comfortable, but it's necessary, as high school is a complicated time, somewhere between childhood and being an adult.

"Parents may not even know how to deal with questions like that," the first year IRHS teacher said. She has had to tackle delicate subjects, from issues with personal hygiene to family break ups, and sees the need for this new class that discusses, in detail, family and community. Her class is called Lifeskills and deals with topics from building resumes and searching for jobs, to getting married, having children and handling stress.

"It's the new home ec," she said, also spending a short time on sewing, cooking and other traditional home economics topics.

About 40 percent of Penazek's students have special needs, and learning how to balance a checkbook, do their laundry and make themselves dinner are essential skills she hopes the class will teach.

But the class, she said is more than that, and she hopes students will learn what they need to go out and participate in jobs, their community and their families.

A large part of class time focuses on career possibilities, with students asked to research fields they would be interested in, finding out what the earning potential is, what skills and training are required to work in that field, and then actually finding jobs online and in classified advertisements.

"They sometimes complain and say this class is so much work, but I tell them, 'Life is so much work. Life will not just hold a job for you and pay you more money than you're worth. You have to work hard at that,'" she said.

As far as the skills learned so far in Lifeskills, freshman Jay Helixon said information about jobs, resumes and career preparation is "interesting," although he doesn't see himself applying those skills for some time.

"It's pretty helpful, I guess," he said. "But I won't use it for a while."

Christy Holmes, a senior, said information about careers and college has been helpful to her in her final year at IRHS.

"The class is goal-oriented and one of a lot of people's goals is just helping out," she said, of the community service aspect of the class.

A large part of the class hinges on community service, and Penazek has several events planned for the year.

The class hosted the nationwide Empty Bowls project this fall, with the culminating spaghetti dinner held in the cafeteria Nov. 9. The 90-plus students involved with the Lifeskills class and Family, Career, Community Leaders of America club raised $700 which will be donated to Gospel Rescue Mission as a result of collecting empty ceramic bowls from the community and then selling tickets to a dinner of homemade pasta, salad, garlic bread and cheese cake, made by students in the culinary arts program at IRHS.

"It's cool because we are helping out the hungry and the homeless," said Helixon, 14, of the fundraiser. "It makes you feel good to know you are helping someone."

The empty bowls event wrapped up the first fundraising event for the new Lifeskills class and Penazek said they will soon start planning a community garage sale as the next event.

Those in attendance at Empty Bowls were impressed, not only with the student's organization in putting it on, but with the creation of the class itself.

"Where was this class when I was in school?" asked local artist Lynne Gingerich, a 20-year member of the Southern Arizona Clay Artist's group that donated 180 bowls to the fundraiser. As a teacher in the Sunnyside school district, she said there is a need for students to learn the realities of jobs, family and community before they graduate.

According to principal Sam McClung, the class is a new offering from the school this year, geared at those on the career and technical education path.

Formerly vocational education, career and technical education "provides a bridge between the public schools and work," McClung said.

At IRHS, that bridge is the hospitality field and Lifeskills is an expansion of the program.

When designing the program, McClung said the district was "reacting to the jobs available in Tucson and Arizona" where tourism is still the biggest industry and jobs at resorts, restaurants and boutiques are available.

In an AIMS world, where teachers and students are constantly thinking about tests and results, there is a segment of the student population that is not thinking about going on to a four-year college.

But McClung said the government and businesses are still saying to schools, "we would like to see 100 percent of students furthering their education beyond high school." Classes such as Penazek's Lifeskills encourage students to look into the possibilities of specialized schools instructing in fashion, culinary arts and hospitality.

McClung said while not all students will go to a major university, it takes more to bring home the bread than just work experience.

"It's a combination of education and experience that gets them to the top in the different industries," and helps individuals become managers and business owners, those able to make a living wage and achieve various levels of success, he said.

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