BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Rolling over four years of helping local students with specialized studies and exposing them to culinary arts, the Elliott Test Kitchen is seeing growth beyond founder Kumar Wickramasingha’s expectations.
At his fourth open house since 2015, Wickramasingha says he’s gone from about 30 students in various initial programs to more than 200 this year. Although he says some of the 200 registered may be the same students registering for different sessions, he says he has to look at them individually because he feeds students while they are at programs.
“My philosophy was that prior after-school programs were kind of looked at as something like a punishment and I want to break that. I want them to come in and feel welcomed and we’ve been working on that.”
Part of the new growth, “STEMS” from a new program that is currently underway with more than 60 students signed up. Wickramasingha has teamed up with the Fort Madison High School’s Robotics Club.
“This year we’re doing something different on Monday,” he said. “Last year, the FMHS started CyberHounds, a school robotics club. They had to raise money for that and they went to the highest competitions in the state. I had them bring them their robotics stuff to our open house at the middle school last week and kids were excited about that.”
The CyberHounds got up and running during the last school year and now the Test Kitchen will be the headquarters for the club’s work and fundraising activities.
“Now those students will be bringing their stuff in here on Monday which will be their headquarters for CyberHounds,” Wickramasingha said. “We told them at our open house at the middle school any kids that want to learn robotics can come over here and those high school kids will come and do some activities with them. At the same time they will can work on sponsorships. Now you make these young kids part of what you’re doing and then you start to get the whole community involved. We’ll make some t-shirts and start creating awareness and then their club can grow and sponsorships will come along with that.”
The Test Kitchen opened four years ago and Wickramasingha said his original plans included programming for 25 to 30 students per year. His goal was to provide a studying outlet that incorporated healthy foods. He said this year he will have to program for about 230 slots.
“I first opened in 2015 and we’ve had an open house every year. My very first one I had 20 kids show up because they didn’t know what it was all about,” Wickramasingha said.
This year’s he’s had 66 sign up for the Monday STEM classes alone, just from the junior high school.
He currently has 172 slots taken up during the regular weekly programming, not including additional National Honor Society and ACT sessions, which brings the total number of seats being filled to 232. He said some of the slots are taken up by the same students, but each student will get a meal at each session.
The ACT preparation classes are held on Sundays with the next session starting on Sept. 16. A testing class will be held on Oct. 27. Classes begin at 6 p.m.
The current programs underway are full, but Wickramasingha said there are still spots available in the upcoming ACT sessions. He said anyone wishing to sign up for the upcoming ACT sessions needs to sign up right away.
Wickramasingha said he points to programming as the main reason for the growth in attendance.
“The very first year it was only homework-oriented, but we learned we needed to program to be more specific and generate higher interest. So we looked at six weeks of Spanish, six weeks of reading, and then six weeks of math, which is always on Wednesday, and then we did six weeks of robotics and that was a hit.”
He said current attendance numbers are higher than what he originally planned for, but he said it’s a good problem to have.
“This program is set up for 25 to 30 so I might have to divide them up. I have a problem in my hands, but it’s a good problem so I’m going to figure it out.”
Despite adding programming and students to the schedule, Wickramasingha said it’s food that binds everything together.
“My personal philosophy is that I wanted to create food and education together. That’s a good combination. The student doesn’t feel like they’re coming to an institutional thing and I’m 100% convinced that’s the way to go,” he said. “The success is that this is all done over a meal. That’s where we’re building a bond. It’s not just homework and that’s the real secret.”
The reaction from the community over the past year, and Wickramasingha’s willingness to open the kitchen for special events, has helped bridge the gap from an idea to a successful enterprise.
“I didn’t know how people were going to react, but I created a story and we used Facebook and kept injecting this into the community for people to see the value of the program. We had footage on social media of this kid or that getting a 33 on an ACT,” he said. “You just didn’t see those types of things before.”
Over the past four years, former Governor Terry Branstad and Iowa Public Television, and many area and local media outlets, have made stops to check out the programs and community events taking place at the kitchen.
“Those people that were here gave it a nice thing, but they all went away saying, ‘Let’s see how this goes’ but now I have the numbers and the data and the reaction from the community to show how this is helping students,” he said.
The programs are also free of charge and support comes from area businesses and individual donations to the Elliott Test Kitchen Foundation, a non-profit 501c3 organization.
“There is no charge. If I were to have charged I think this would have gone down the drain,” he said.
Sessions typically run from 3:30 to 6 with snacks and dinner included, with transportation provided from Fort Madison Middle School to the Test Kitchen on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Mondays are STEM study sessions with the Fort Madison Robotics Club, or CyberHounds. Tuesdays are dedicated to Middle School students with teachers on hand for various academic enrichments such as Spanish, science, cooking, and even chess. Wednesdays are math days for students in grades 4th -12th, and Thursdays are dedicated to science fair preparation.