Bruce Davis and Peter Akerboom know what it’s like to stand at the tops of their careers. They’ve done it twice first as executive chefs for some of the nation’s best-known restaurants, and now as instructors whose program is truly among the nation’s best.
Their high-school curriculum was one of only three to be named “promising” in a recognition project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s vocational division.
The full name of the national awards project is a mouthful: “Sharing and Celebrating Exemplary and Promising Career and Technical Education Programs.” It’s conducted by the National Dissemination Center for Career and Technical Education, at The Ohio State University.
But it boils down to this: More than 100 secondary and postsecondary programs were nominated, and 53 of those made the cut to be reviewed. After an on-site visit by the evaluation team, Davis and Akerboom’s program in Severn, Md., missed being named “exemplary” by a knife-thin margin. However, the “promising” designation did lead to a visit from the U.S. assistant secretary of education to see an outstanding program in action.
At their school, the Center for Applied Technology North (CATN), the two instructors share lab space with culinary arts on one side, baking and pastry arts on the other, and a glassed-in classroom in the middle.
“When I came on board 10 years ago, we had nothing,” Akerboom points out. “I had no mixers over there. I had no ovens.” What was once a salad preparation area is now a student-run operation for wholesale and retail baking, special orders and catering.
CATN serves students in grades nine through 12 from seven local high schools and one alternative high school. Every nine weeks, mornings and afternoons, a new set of ninth-graders rotates through an exploratory program. Those interested in pursuing culinary arts enroll in the 18-week Level 1. At Levels 2 and 3, juniors and seniors are there all year long, five days a week, two and one-half hours a day.
Akerboom looks at his students as “raw ingredients” who through knowledge, discipline and application develop a foundation that can take them wherever they want to go. “And it’s not just culinary arts, or baking and pastry,” he notes. “We teach them life skills as well, because in order to be successful here, you’ve got to be successful all around.”
A former Marine, Akerboom used to work as an executive pastry chef in Las Vegas. He narrowly escaped from the deadly MGM Grand hotel fire in the early 1980s. He was the only American hired to help a renowned French bakery convert to U.S. production levels.
Davis, the instructor on the culinary arts side, once worked for the Olive Garden, Clyde’s and other restaurant chains, creating not only menus but floor plans and décor.
“I did a lot of restaurant openings, a lot of training, so it was kind of natural for me to get into teaching,” he says. Since coming to CATN eight years ago, he’s been chosen for a study visit to Japan, through the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program.
According to Davis, his students’ participation in the SkillsUSA Championships helped his program meet the exacting criteria that led to being designated as a “promising” career and technical program. “I think the reason we got the award was the number of different things we do with students, SkillsUSA being part of that,” he explains.
“To get the awards, they say to us, ‘Prove it.’ Our biggest proof is our students’ success in these competitions. I think the competitions actually give the students ownership. When they go and compete, they come back and say, ‘I did this myself. So you know what, I’m going to do this again.’”
“SkillsUSA competition results proved the students are getting the skills. And that weighed heavily in it,” Davis adds. “The key evidence we have that our students are meeting the V-TECS [Vocational Education Trade Curriculum Standards] skills are the fact that they win the SkillsUSA Championships, where these skills are tested and judged by outside people.”
By any standard, his students are very involved in SkillsUSA competitions. In 2000-2001, they won seven regional medals and seven state medals. In four of the past five years, CATN students have represented their state at the national competitions. One of them, Megan Barnes of Glen Burnie, is the 2001 national silver medalist in Commercial Baking.
Competition alone isn’t what placed his program among the nation’s best. The judges looked at many different aspects of the curriculum. Still, “SkillsUSA is a very integral part of our program being selected,” Davis says.
According to Davis and Akerboom, the only thing keeping their program from national exemplary status was its lack of American Culinary Federation certification. They’re working on getting that and will later reapply for the national education award.
Their first application covered almost 30 pages, describing how their curriculum meets the criteria for quality, educational significance, evidence of its effectiveness and success, and how replicable and useful it is to others. Only five high school programs earned the highest distinction.
Business and industry partnerships contribute to the excellence of the CATN program. It’s a test kitchen for Vulcan-Hart Corp., a manufacturer of commercial kitchen equipment. Business partners provide craft advisors, guest speakers, interviewers, field trip sponsors, and shadowing and internship sites.
Sometimes business partners play a more hands-on role in helping students succeed. “The upper-level classes do mock job interviews where we’ll actually get employers in, and some of the students are hired on the spot,” Davis says. Aligned with industry standards, the program has offered national certification in sanitation since 1994. During 2001, 92 percent of the students earned the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe manager certification.
The program has earned other recognition for its performance, receiving the Maryland Department of Education award of excellence for the most outstanding secondary career and technology education program, and a “governor’s citation” for the most outstanding secondary career and technology program in the state.
Despite these accolades, not every CATN student wants to enter the SkillsUSA Championships program.
“Not all of the students are gung-ho about competing in SkillsUSA,” Davis says. “But the ones that do are the ones that do well and succeed.”
To Akerboom, the competitions make teaching all the more rewarding. “It’s seeing the students that go out there and compete and knew they couldn’t do it,” he explains. “They say, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it’ the tears come down their faces. And they walk away with a gold medal or a silver medal, something where they just shine.”
A poster hangs on the classroom wall of CATN graduates who are attending postsecondary schools. Students completing the program can earn up to 17 college credits through program articulation agreements with Anne Arundel (Md.) Community College, Johnson & Wales University and Pennsylvania Culinary Institute.
Those kinds of ties prompted Carol D’Amico, U.S. assistant secretary for adult and vocational education, to visit the center in March. D’Amico later wrote, “I was impressed with the staff and with the relationships between the secondary and postsecondary sides of the ‘house.’ ”
Deputy Assistant Secretary Hans Meeder called the visit “very valuable to us, because it gave a better perspective on what can happen when a school system is working to make sure all its students excel. That grounding in reality will, hopefully, help us make better informed policy decisions.”
“We don’t expect any more out of our students than what the employer on the outside expects,” Akerboom points out. “I’ve always said this: ‘If you can get by me, you’ll be OK on the outside.’
“But before we put that stamp of approval on your forehead and put you out in the work force, we’re not gonna make it easy. You’re not gonna make one pie and say, ‘I can make pies.’ You’re gonna make hundreds of pies. You’re gonna make thousands of cookies. You’re gonna decorate a ‘bazillion’ cakes. You’re gonna make sure that you understand the theories and practices behind them to be successful. And that’s the only way you can do it.”
SkillsUSA Champions | Summer 2002 | Volume 36, No. 4