Tricia Hahn-Rosario doesn't look at sewing as a hobby or necessity from a bygone era. Instead, she sees it as inspiration to a bigger world of creativity, whether it is sewing a pillow case or a prom dress from designer fabrics. And don't dare call her classes at Winnetonka High School in the North Kansas City School District just "home ec."
Instead, imagine them more like episodes of Project Runaway for high school students. “The level I teach is pretty rare in schools,” Hahn-Rosario says. “These classes are more than about sewing. They are about how students can have a career path in the $8 billion fashion industry.”
When Hahn-Rosario began teaching at Winnetonka High School 16 years ago, clothing classes were under the umbrella of family consumer sciences, or home ec. The fashion/clothing class had three levels of students in one classroom. Some could barely thread a needle, while others could create a dress. Hahn-Rosario saw that there was a better way to teach sewing and went to her school’s administration with an idea.
“They allowed me free reign,” she says. “I wanted to separate the classes by skill level, and I could only do that if more students signed up. So I started recruiting.”
She displayed her class’s projects in showcases to attract the attention of potential recruits. And her students naturally drew interest every time they wore clothes to school that they'd made themselves. When the class made and delivered projects to residents of a nearby nursing home, even more kids were inspired to take her classes to help others.
The course soon blossomed from one to three: Teaching Clothing and Fashion 1, Clothing and Fashion 2, and the final level, Apparel Construction. The school’s administrators have allowed seniors to take Apparel Construction for two years and receive credit both years—a rare decision, Hahn-Rosario says.
Additionally, she teaches a class about fashion merchandising for students who are not interested in actually constructing clothing. In it she teaches about careers in merchandising and retailing.
According to Hahn-Rosario, one of the keys of her success is that she gives students creative control of everything they make. She says some teachers have called her crazy in the past because she would oversee 24 students working on 24 various projects.
“I loved the fact they make their own choices and they are able to pick,” says Hahn-Rosario, who learned sewing from her mother and two grandmothers. “If you give students choice and ownership of something, they will excel. They are buying their fabrics and supplies, and should have that freedom.”
In Clothing and Fashion 2, students learn about garment details such as necklines, cuffs, and collars, and the principals of design. Students create from patterns that they make, and begin a portfolio that includes sewing samples. They choose five projects to complete, each of which must be more challenging than the last.
Aside from the clothes themselves, there is another special perq to having Hahn-Rosario as a teacher: mega field trips. Initially, Hahn-Rosario took her classes to Kaplan's Fabrics in Kansas City, an upscale store with designer fabrics from around the world. But then some students, who had bonded over their years in the fashion classes, came up with an idea in 2009. Inspired by “Project Runway,” which they watch in class, they said "Let’s go to New York City."
“I found a travel agent and we went,” Hahn-Rosario says. “We went to the fabric store [featured on the show] and to Parson’s. That started this whole field trip thing.” As a result more students enrolled. The next year the class traveled to Chicago. In 2011, they chose to return to New York City. Last year, they visited Los Angeles where they toured fabric stores, Rodeo Drive, and met Nick Verreos from Season 2 of Project Runway. The students also met one of Hahn-Rosario’s former students who then worked for Juicy Couture and now works for Dolce & Gabbana.
However, these trips, paid for by the students, aren’t just about fun and fashion. Regardless of location, every one includes a college visit. Hahn-Rosario says, “I want to make sure they are exposed to educational opportunities that they might not be aware of.”
This summer, the trip went to the next level: Paris, followed by a side trip to Milan. Students bought European fabrics, which several girls are now using to create their homecoming and prom dresses.
One such student is Megan Fairchild, a senior who has taken four years of Rosario's classes. She says that Rosario's classes offer an opportunity to students that no other school does. "She takes sewing beyond just PJ pants and simple projects," Fairchild says. "With her advanced classes I have found a passion and talent that I probably wouldn't have discovered otherwise. Not only does she help her students inside the classroom, Mrs. Rosario forms relationships with us all and has become a major role model for me."
Hahn-Rosario's classes have become so popular now that she often has more students—including some of the school's male athletes—than sewing machines.
“My passion isn’t teaching just fashion,” she says. “It’s more about construction, and I thoroughly believe if you can construct a piece of clothing, you are using math and science and so many skills.”
This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.