In another prep area a few feet away, a petite girl with a brown ponytail and round hazel eyes cuts large russet potatoes into wedges, then tosses them with herbs and olive oil in a stainless-steel bowl.
The round-eyed girl is named Karina, and she informs me that she’s here because “it’s fun,” making it clear that not everyone who takes career and technical-education courses has their life path plotted as well as Abad.
Each month, the students in Smith-Piatt’s class learn and perform one job: expediter, cashier, phone, barista, prep, dishes, or grill. The Hungry Tiger Cafe is open only three days a week. The other two days, students learn from their textbooks (Culinary Essentials and The Foundations of Restaurant Management and Culinary Arts) or participate in discussions with guest chefs.
Smith-Piatt, who once owned (and now still works as executive chef for) a local catering company, says that the restaurant days are “like [the reality show] Hell’s Kitchen, without the language.”
Indeed, as we talk while surrounded by working students, Smith-Piatt frequently stops to address their inquiries about how to store the pesto, whether to cube or slice the carrots, and whether to add bananas to the oatmeal prior to or after heating.
In the Hungry Tiger Cafe, on the other side of a wall of windows, a laminated poster hangs on a bulletin board above the bookshelf where textbooks are kept.
“The A-G Requirements,” it reads. “Your pathway to California’s Colleges and Universities.”
Then it lists the requirements: a) history/social science (two years); b) English (four years); c) mathematics (three years required, four years recommended); d) laboratory science (two years required, three years recommended); e) foreign language (two years required, three years recommended); f) visual and performing arts (one year required); and g) college-prep elective (one year required).
Smith-Piatt’s culinary-arts program gained approval this year as a college-prep elective, after more science was added to the curriculum. For some people, she says, the reputation of career and technical education overrides the idea that some CTE courses count toward California State and University of California entrance requirements.
“CTE went out of fashion for awhile because they considered it tracking,” Smith-Piatt says, dismissing the idea with a wave of her hand. “But [the food industry] is one of the few fields where you can go either way. You can go to culinary school, or if school’s not your thing, you can still end up an executive chef.”
She believes that the skills and work ethic she emphasizes in class will serve the students well in whatever path they choose. The office of college, career, and technical education at San Diego Unified echoes this sentiment on its website, where it stresses that the integration of academic and workplace skills is the special recipe that prepares students for college and career.
And yet, as Smith-Piatt suggests, opponents of career and technical education worry that the courses offered don’t lead to post-secondary/college education. Last March, after obtaining nearly 1500 signatures in three weeks, a group of La Jolla parents shut down San Diego Unified’s bold attempt to mandate two years of CTE courses as a graduation requirement. The parents’ reasons were that such a mandate would thwart their college-bound children’s trajectory by replacing academic courses with career/tech courses.
Even when the district explained that the University of California and California State University systems have approved over 10,000 CTE courses that meet their “A-G” entrance requirements, the parents were not convinced. Currently, only 60 percent of San Diego Unified’s advanced CTE courses are A-G approved.
At University City, for example, the biomedical-science program meets A-G requirements for lab sciences. The Morse auto-body program, however, is not A-G approved, but instead leads toward industry certification.
This inconsistency worried the opposing parents, who feared that their children would be forced to replace their advanced placement and elective courses with classes that did not interest them or help them get into college. After meeting with opponents, San Diego Unified voted to rescind the mandate.
Not all programs are created equal
The number of A-G courses in any given program is only one area in which these career and technical education programs differ. While internships and real-life work experience play a large role in the district’s promotion of their CTE programs, a look at available internship opportunities paints a vastly different picture from one program to another.
Lisa McDonnell, communications and operations associate at San Diego Unified’s office of college, career, and technical education, says that the students learn the “nuts and bolts” through their beginning and intermediate classes. The advanced courses, available mostly to juniors and seniors, she says, “are supposed to have internships with them.”
The expectation is that teachers will come into the programs with years of industry experience and contacts in the field.
“We’re hoping that they come in with names of people and places,” McDonnell says, “so when they have a student that’s ready to go out, they can pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, friend-person from my days in the industry, could you do an internship?’”
Ideally, all students would have a four-day-per-week internship that takes place during the last period(s) of the day. The fifth day would be spent on campus, checking in with their teacher.
“We’re shooting for a minimum number of 35 hours,” she says. “Obviously, there are glitches.”
A student’s class and/or sports schedule, for example, may only allow for an hour a day, which might not fit the needs of the company offering the internship.
“Or, let’s say you have somebody who was a nurse up at Rady Children’s Hospital in Kearny Mesa and you’ve got a program down at Morse; that’s quite a distance for a kid to travel. I will say, transportation is a big hurdle.”
These “glitches” result in inconsistent internship opportunities.
In the Morse auto-body program, for example, students can only attend internships during off-school hours, mostly during the summer. At University City’s biomedical-science program, however, all seniors participate in an internship (at area labs and hospitals such as Scripps Genomics, and the Veterinary Hospital affiliated with UC Davis), which they do during school hours. The teacher helps arrange transportation.
For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory