Skip to main content
Full Menu

CTE power to the rescue

New York Teacher

Two women in chef gear, a woman in a blouse, and a man in a suit, stand at a table in a professional kitchen.
Jonathan Fickies

Alesha Nicole Dunn, a 12th-grader, shows Sterling Roberson, the UFT’s vice president for career and technical education high schools, a classic French knife skill called tournée (pronounced tour-nay) for peeling and cutting root vegetables into oblong, football-like shapes. Looking on are Alexis Raccasi (left), who teaches culinary and College Now classes, and Laura Molite, a culinary instructor and the work-based learning coordinator.

Seniors David and Briana practice tournée. Besides helping the vegetables cook e
Jonathan Fickies

Seniors David and Briana practice tournée. Besides helping the vegetables cook evenly, proficiency in the skill scores points in competition.

Students at Long Island City HS have competed in culinary arts competitions for years and have won more than $1 million in scholarships. In 2014 alone, five students won a combined $335,000. It’s no wonder Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña publicly raves about the beef Wellington served at the school.

But just six years ago, the Queens school was one of 33 in the city on the state’s “persistently lowest achieving” list and was at risk of being closed. The city’s Department of Education assigned Long Island City to the transformation model in order to secure federal funding to help it improve.

And has it ever been transformed!

I am always eager to extol the virtues of career and technical education, especially at this time of year: February is CTE month, when we celebrate programs nationwide. Rigorous curricula in many CTE fields keep thousands of students engaged and interested in school and their futures, as we prepare them for high-skill, high-wage careers and life after high school.

But CTE has the power to do so much more. The culinary arts and other career tech programs helped lift Long Island City HS out of “transformation” status.

Ken Achiron, the school’s gymnastics coach, was the longtime chapter leader who saw the school through those turbulent years. “The Culinary Arts Department provided good publicity,” Achiron said. “Our students are very well-trained; one of our graduates brought much-needed respect to the school by beating well-known chef Bobby Flay on TV.”

In addition, Achiron said, the program attracted new students with stronger academic backgrounds. “While LIC takes students of all backgrounds and challenges and is a true neighborhood school, it’s good to have a specialized program that attracts other students who provide a balance,” he said.

As today’s thriving culinary program prepares 335 students for careers in the restaurant and hospitality industry, it also contributes to local economic development by working closely with the Long Island City Partnership, a neighborhood development organization.

On a recent visit to the school’s culinary arts lab, I saw enthusiastic freshmen learning about food safety while six seniors were working through their lunch period to prepare for two culinary competitions.

The culinary arts students also practice after school and on weekends. The sacrifices they are making show their investment in the program and their motivation, grit and tenacity. It all bodes well for their capacity for success.

“Talk about leadership and determination and focus,” said Laura Molite, a culinary instructor and the work-based learning coordinator. She described what her motivated seniors do in addition to schoolwork and competition prep — things like soccer, fencing, rowing, volleyball and part-time jobs. Some intern at Long Island City-based businesses like Neuman’s Kitchen caterers and Birch Coffee.

CTE is turning out well-rounded individuals with experience juggling busy schedules and competing responsibilities — all good preparation for life after high school.

“We support the students as much as we can in the classroom, but what I am most proud of is that many of the students do things on their own,” Molite said.

The teachers at LIC HS told me that the program exposes students to both career opportunities and colleges. They said it also helps students build confidence and break out of their shells.

And it helps some, like Alesha Nicole Dunn, to follow their passion. Dunn said she was inspired by her late stepfather. “Just cooking in the kitchen together made me want to do it for the rest of my life,” she said.

I was reminded of my own father, who always told me and my six siblings: “I will do today what others won’t so I can live tomorrow as others can’t.” That was my father’s advice, and it’s the lesson of CTE.

Related Topics: VPerspective, CTE