Vt.’s Career Education Investment Paying Off

  • Junior Tianna Denk cleans a stove at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center on Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Hartford, Vt. Denk is part of a culinary program taught by Chef Patrick Gobeille. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Junior Cody French cleans the range hood at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center kitchen with his culinary class, on Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Hartford, Vt. The students learn kitchen skills from Chef Patrick Gobeille, who taught the class for the first time this year. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jovelle Tamayo

  • Junior culinary class students clean the kitchen they cooked in for a year at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center, on Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Hartford, Vt. The students work under Chef Patrick Gobeille, who taught the class for the first time this year. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jovelle Tamayo

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2017 12:26:13 AM
Modified: 6/4/2017 12:26:22 AM

Hartford — Out of view of the dining room out front, Chef Patrick Gobeille was giving orders Thursday morning as five or six teens bustled about the kitchen with wire-bristled brushes and green rubber gloves.

“All right, Bella, I want you to just work on the stove,” Gobeille said. “Pull those ‘spiders’ off and get them clean, and we’ll go from there.”

Isabella Terino, a 17-year-old from Wilder with lofty career goals, obliged, her slight frame straining with the weight of the heavy cast-iron piece — the “spider” in kitchen lingo — that she pulled out of the stovetop range.

Terino and 11 classmates from throughout the Upper Valley are graduating this month from the culinary arts program, which teaches juniors and seniors at the Hartford Area Career & Technology Center by having them operate the Getaway, an in-school restaurant open to students, staff and the public.

As the students seek propitious spots in college or the workforce, each is focused on his or her own success, but collectively they carry a greater burden — a major state investment in a decade-long effort to bring vocational schools from a shaded past to a bright future.

Career and technical education — what was once called vocational schooling — has been quietly growing in importance in Vermont since 2007, when the federal Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act directed states to stop thinking of vocational school as an all-purpose dumping ground for those who might struggle in a traditional classroom setting, and to start thinking of it as a path to real success in the workforce.

Today, there are 17 career centers throughout the state, and the state spends millions of dollars to subsidize tuition rates, defray teacher salaries, bus students between their home districts and career centers, support student organizations, fund teacher development, and replace equipment like the stovetop that Terino was scrubbing clean.

In January, Vermont Deputy Education Secretary Bill Talbott and Jay Ramsey, state director of career and technical education, produced a report showing the state spent $13.3 million on these items in the 2017 fiscal year.

That same month, Gov. Phil Scott, who first entered college to be a tech education teacher, issued a budget address that identified career and technical education programs as a priority for increased funding.

Terino, whose mother works in the produce department of the Upper Valley Food Co-op, seems like a shining example of what the program can accomplish. When she entered the culinary program as a junior, she saw herself graduating into a career into the arts — perhaps design, she said.

“But this honestly helped me find my passion, so it was kind of fate,” she said. “Because I love food. I actually love food. It’s definitely an art.”

This summer, Terino plans to leave her job at Killdeer Farm in Norwich to go to Puerto Rico, where she’ll participate in an internship program on an organic farm. Then, it’s off to Front Range Community College in Colorado, where she’ll study to be a nutritionist, she says.

Three of her classmates — Cam Viens, 18, of Hartford; Collin Becker, 17, of Plainfield; and Andrea Field, 18, of Grantham — have been accepted at Lakes Region Community College in New Hampshire, which the students visited during a class trip earlier this year.

“I was one of those kids in, like, sophomore year that didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives,” said Viens. “I didn’t even want to go to college, to be honest with you. But I decided to take this class on a whim, and it became more than just a class.”

That’s not unusual, said Doug Heavisides, the director of the Hartford career center.

“Often, they don’t view themselves as academic students, and then they come here and make that connection,” he said. “It makes every student realize they’re a learner, which they may not have understood before.”

Becker, a rangy teen in a ball cap, said the program has allowed him to develop a life plan that he’s really excited about: opening a food truck of his own.

“I don’t want to have one set kind of food,” Becker said. “I want to be able to create whatever I was really feeling that week. So I could go from Italian one week to Asian to something similar to what we do here.”

Becker and the other students said that, while they had to acclimate to the social awkwardness of serving friends and classmates from outside the culinary program at the Getaway, their social circles respect and appreciate their newfound cooking skills.

Sometimes, friends ask them to come over and create a meal, as was the case with a friend of Becker’s.

“She asked me for an ingredients list, and I texted it to her,” he said. “She supplied me with all the ingredients, so I made a chicken teriyaki stir fry with noodles.”

In a 2015 state report on Vermont’s Act 51, the law that regulates career and technical education in the state, education officials described programs like the Hartford Career Center as a critical opportunity to level the playing field for students from limited means and backgrounds.

The report acknowledged that the state has worked against impediments such as a reluctance among colleges to offer dual enrollment credit for career and technical education programs, and a stigma that might have a dampening effect on student enrollment.

The other students who were briskly scrubbing the kitchen equipment have aspirations as well.

Brandon Terrill, 18, of Lebanon, will leave his job at Big Fatty’s BBQ in White River Junction and head to Valencia College in Orlando. He’d like to open a barbecue restaurant of his own one day.

And Field wants to open a farm-to-table restaurant, serving animals she’s raised herself.

That didn’t appeal to Kyle Kohler, 18, of Norwich.

“I don’t like watching animals die,” said Kohler, who plans to take an internship with a workplace training program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Part of the increased focus on career and technical education has been incorporating more measurable academic skills into the curriculum, said Heavisides.

“You don’t just pick up the tools of the culinary trade and start to make great food,” he said.

“You have to know the science. You have to know the history. There’s a really strong academic component to being a successful chef.”

Becker said that he’s still grappling with the realities of raising money for a food truck, and becoming a real entrepreneur.

“Watching your food cost and your food waste and making sure that what you put out has enough of a profit margin, that it can pay for the work and any other cost you really need,” he said. “Being smart with your money is going to be part of it.”

There are signs that the state’s investment in career and technical education is working.

While the total student population in Vermont is shrinking, the number of students in career and technical education programs is holding steady, or increasing.

The 2015 state report found that over the previous decade, while the total student enrollment in the state had declined by more than 13 percent, the number of students in career and technical education programs had remained constant, at about 5,300 students, representing an increased participation rate.

The report found that “96 percent of (career and technical education) program concentrators were enrolled in post-secondary education, employed, or in the military,” a rate slightly better than the total population of recent high school graduates.

Part of the reason for the increased participation rates may be positive word of mouth, as those who transition from programs like Hartford’s culinary class into the workforce share their positive experiences.

Jaxson Potwin, who graduated in 2015, said the program helped him learn about the industry, and helped connect him with an after-school job at King Arthur Flour in Norwich.

“I now find myself on the management team at King Arthur,” he said.

And Heather Bailey, who graduated in 2013, said the skills she learned in the program helped her in a nonculinary profession as a teller at Lake Sunapee Bank.

“If you make a mistake, just own up to it and take responsibility for it,” she said. “It’s much easier to fix it when you take the honest route.”

Thursday’s cleaning tasks would end with them covering every stove and appliance with plastic, and shutting the doors of the Getaway until next November, when a new batch of cooks-in-training would dust it off to bring the center’s student-run restaurant back to life.

“It’s that nostalgic time of year,” said Gobeille during a quiet moment, “where all the kids are not really sure what they’re going to do. They know what they’re doing, but they’re not really sure what’s going to happen next.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

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