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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.

Culinary students taste their work

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

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monaghan March 12, 2013 @ 1:21 p.m.

This program livens up the high school curriculum for large numbers of San Diego kids who may not be college-bound -- a legitimate condition that was entirely ignored by the "high expectations" crowd for at least the last decade. Obviously, the workings are imperfect, as described here, but over time it can be improved and will benefit both students and local business and labor groups. It's the return of an old good idea after a long dry spell and the District needs to eliminate its present shortcomings and make it a showpiece.

Turning technical/vocational courses into graduation requirements for everyone is NOT a good idea, however, as those smart La Jollans and Scripps Ranchers realized last year. It's a mystery why the School District could not have figured that out on its own without sparking a middle class uprising and online petition to sink it.

Taking such an extreme step would have jeopardized the competitive admissions standing of college-bound San Diego public school students among their peers nationwide and ultimately it could have driven a lot of local families out of the public schools. It's possible the graduation requirement issue may return in future, as this may be yet another education "reform" fad similar to its "high expectations" predecessor -- ideas pushed in Sacramento and funded with private foundation and federal dollars in isolation from practical reality.


bvagency March 12, 2013 @ 2:37 p.m.

This is an excellent program for the large percentage of kids that wont go on to college. It provides training to ready these kids for a specific career. Unfortunately, not all school districts value this program. Sweetwater Union High District Trustees voted to issue pink slips to teachers in this program, thereby relegating it to possible elimination. This after the Districts Bond Program (prop o) spent tens of millions of dollars building classes specific to this education at numerous high schools.

Lack of vision, mis spending and ultimately lack of leadership will drastically impact kids in this program. Thank goodness the San Diego Unified district still sees value in it.


bbq March 13, 2013 @ 6:11 a.m.

As I am not sure I want to get into another running dialog on where we are screwing up in our educational system. As a Mechanical Engineer, I see a lot of Mechanically Illiterate People in our growing electronic world. I include my own three boys to a certain extent, which I take on myself, but like school and universities, have said for eons about General education we need well rounded individuals.
Well we have gone to the extreme where our students never get to understand the feeling of having a tool in their hands, weather its a wrench or a spatchula (sp), needle and thread, a musical instrument or how knowlege and training in useful skills.
The connection of hand to mind is a powerful teaching tool not only to learn a career but to foster a bond or desire to delve deeper into a subject or idea, really to create. Tools develop the ability to problem solve through logical progression, weather its bolt-washer- nut or flour-egg-water.
We do ourselves and our students, a disservice by not providing, supporting and in some cases requiring basic classes in these skills in our Middle and High Schools.


monaghan March 13, 2013 @ 3:54 p.m.

"The connection of hand to mind" IS powerful and important and should be part of children's lives. But the instruction needs to be excellent and the materials and tools should be first-rate. A retired physician friend makes wooden boats and travels once a month from his home in Massachusetts to practice wood-working with a Vermont craftsman. The work is more deeply satisfying to him than anything from his previous professional life. That's the kind of experience our students deserve.


bbq March 13, 2013 @ 10:36 p.m.

While I agree with your ideal, I will tell you two of the classes that affected my future the most were 6th Grade, combination of Home Econ/cooking, Wood Shop, Home Econ/sewing, Metal Shop and 9th Grade Industrial adventure, Metal, Wood shops, Automotives (rebuilt lawn mower engines) and Machine Drawing. These skills have never steered me wrong, I am an Engineer by trade but the basic skills and concepts are fundimental and transfer to life skills. Again well rounded individuals.


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