Alumna wins national family and consumer sciences award

Kelley teaches about food insecurity and poverty at Bloomer High School
UW-Stout alumna Charlene Kelley has been named a 2021 National Merit Finalist by the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. Kelley teaches family and consumer sciences and health classes at Bloomer High School.
Pam Powers | June 3, 2021

A University of Wisconsin-Stout alumna and family and consumer sciences/health teacher at Bloomer High School has been named a 2021 National Merit Finalist by a national organization.

Charlene Kelley, who graduated from UW-Stout in 1999 with a degree in home economics education now known as family and consumer sciences education, will be recognized at the virtual national convention of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences held Wednesday, June 16, to Friday, June 18.

“I chose UW-Stout because of its proximity to Elk Mound and my mom, Bonni Falkner, worked at the university,” said Kelley, an Elk Mound High School graduate. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I really liked career and technical education. I loved the family relationship piece of family and consumer sciences education.”

Falkner, of rural Elk Mound, recently retired as budget manager in the Provost’s Office.

Kelley grew up playing teacher as a child, but her career aspiration solidified after she attended a teacher camp in Wisconsin when she was 16 years old.

“It was such an amazing experience,” Kelley said. “I just loved it. There was a lot of team building and arts and crafts time. It was a lot of learning to create curriculum and how to communicate with other people. I knew after that I wanted to be a teacher. It just felt right.”

Kelley, in center, with students working on a pickle autopsy, which is part of a health class that gives students technical college credit.
Kelley, in center, with students working on a pickle autopsy, which is part of a health class that gives students technical college credit. / UW-Stout photo

Kelley enjoys family and consumer sciences because she teaches life skills such as creating nutritional meals and financial literacy.

“Everything I teach is practical,” Kelley said. “They will be able to use it every day. It’s one thing to choose to buy food that is already premade or to eat in a restaurant, but I want them to have a choice and have the skills to make a meal at home. It is practical knowledge I know they are going to use in their future.”

Learning to deal with finances is a vital skill as well, Kelley said.

“Financial literacy is huge right now,” she added. “I teach juniors and seniors so they can do their taxes, budget, understand a checking account and credit card.”

Her program at Bloomer  focuses on teaching students about poverty and food insecurity and how it looks in other Chippewa Valley communities. After attending a poverty simulation project in 2014, Kelley realized there was a growing need for free and reduced lunches in the Chippewa Valley.  From 30% to 40% of K-12 students in the area qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, nearly double what it was six years ago.

“I want to instill the value of what it means to be food insecure and that it happens here,” Kelley said. “There is a problem here and we have to work through it.”

Food insecurity is defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Fellow teacher Vanessa Sieg started the Hawk’s Closet at Bloomer High School. It provides food and clothing for students.

When Kelley realized students were not taking rice, canned vegetables or canned chicken and other more nutritious foods, she had her students create recipes and place them on cards using commonly available food pantry items to provide to other students, giving them the ability to cook a meal.

“They had to learn to standardize a recipe,” Kelley said. “They had to write the recipe using their English skills and so other students could understand it.”

As the students shared their recipes, some also shared their stories of how they and their families struggled financially from a lost job or during a divorce or another life-changing event, Kelley said.

“I don’t see a lot of people who don’t want to work,” Kelley said. “There are a lot of kids working jobs to help their families.”

When students are food insecure, it affects all parts of their lives, Kelley said.

“The deck is stacked against them,” she noted. “The likelihood of them getting a post-secondary education is less. It is less likely they will have a job with health insurance, less likely they will have reliable transportation and all of it becomes more of a struggle.”

Kelley knows teachers make a difference to students and wants to help prepare students for their future. In the picture, Kelley works with students on a puzzle.
Kelley knows teachers make a difference to students and wants to help prepare students for their future. In the picture, Kelley works with students on a puzzle. / UW-Stout photo

Professor Emeritus Judy Rommel, of the former B.S. and M.S. home economics programs, said Kelly was deserving of national recognition as an outstanding educator.

“To me, Charlene … epitomizes the best of the home economics/family consumer sciences tradition of UW-Stout,” Rommel said. “Her education degree was enhanced by a minor in health education. Charlene engaged with standards-based grading when it was adopted in the Bloomer school district. She has presented on the topic at the national conference. She continues to support the family and consumer sciences program at UW-Stout by hosting student teachers and speaking to education classes on campus.”

Kelley, who won the 2020 Wisconsin family and consumer sciences teacher of the year award, was surprised to be a National Merit Finalist.

“This opens a lot of doors to get speakers to come to talk with students and show other people what we have here,” Kelley said, noting Sieg and fellow teacher Alyson Zwiefelhofer, a UW-Stout 2010 family and consumer sciences education graduate, have been instrumental with the class projects.

Lori Henry, a family and consumer sciences teacher at Spring Lake Park High School near Minneapolis, won the AAFCS National Teacher of the Year.

One of Kelley’s goals is to increase the number of classes offered at her high school that give dual college credit to students. She teaches a Culture of Health Care class that gives students two credits at Chippewa Valley Technical College and a culinary class that gives students food safety and sanitation class credits. She wants to create such partnerships with UW-Stout classes too that would open the doors for more students to attend a four-year college.

“We’re in the business of people,” Kelley said. “This is the ultimate job to work with young people. I like listening to and talking to them. I get to help them with scholarships and college applications. I know we as teachers make a difference. There isn’t a teacher in this school building who hasn’t had an impact on someone. I don’t think there is a better field for me.”

UW-Stout offers both on-campus and online degrees in family and consumer sciences education.

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