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Educating the public on cupcakes

Memorial DayMergers, Acquisitions and Takeovers

Between the two of them, Bill Kerlina and Adell Cothorne have 35 years of experience in public education. Collectively, they have about a year's worth of business experience.

That didn't stop them, however, from concocting a new recipe for their futures.

Kerlina and Cothorne left their jobs as principals in the Washington, D.C., public school system at the end of the 2010-2011 academic year. They're not retiring, but they are moving on to sweeter pastures: opening up a cupcakery inEllicott City.

Kerlina and Cothorne's brainchild is Cooks 'N Cakes, opening on Route 40, either at the end of October or beginning of November, in the space previously occupied by the Breadery.

It's a far cry from the world of education, but the two aren't looking back.

"I just knew, at the beginning of last year, that this wasn't working out for me," said Kerlina, the former principal at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School. His friend, Cothorne, a principal at Noyes Education Campus, had felt the same way.

"I came to a point where things were a little tough for me, more than a little tough," she said.

The two met while working in Montgomery County in 2006, and became fast friends. Cothorne, 41, of Catonsville, was already baking; in 2004 she had earned her doctorate from Walden University and to help relax from the academic stress, she had enrolled in a cake decorating class.

Both had made the move to the D.C. school system and as the years progressed, both grew more and more disenchanted with their jobs. Cothorne, now baking cupcakes regularly, began to re-evaluate her life and her job, and realized it was time for some changes.

She was "thinking cupcakes."

She was driving home from work one day in early spring, talking with Kerlina, when he pointed out their conversations had centered on a different subject matter of late.

"(He said) our conversations used to be about education, and now they were all about cupcakes," she said. "I said, you know, you should go into business with me."

Kerlina wasn't sold yet — he hadn't even tried Cothorne's cupcakes. But a conversation over Memorial Day weekend helped change his mind, when, while on vacation, a parent called him to "rip him a new one" about a tutoring program he had recommended for a student.

"I decided that weekend I wasn't returning to D.C. public schools," said Kerlina, 39, of Potomac. "I wasn't going to do this anymore. I wasn't going to get yelled at for things beyond my control. I called Adell, and she said, 'That's it, I'm bringing over the business plan.' "

Demanding parents were only part of the problem, Kerlina said, and Cothorne agreed. The source of most of their disillusionment came from the educational reform movement.

"In my opinion, it's not reform," Kerlina said. "I think about reform, and I think it should mean bringing education to the children and adapting it to their individual needs, and not the other way around. … Education isn't about an exam, it's about being able to build lifelong learners."

"Like us," Cothorne added. "Opening a business has been such a huge learning curve for us. It's so exciting because we're learning something we never thought we'd embark on."

It's less stressful, too, or at least a different kind of stress.

"As a principal, I felt I could never leave work," Cothorne said. "I'd be on the phone at night, making dinner, talking to parents. But with this, we'll be fine. Dude, it's cupcakes."

Cothorne and Kerlina aren't finished with education completely, however. They said they're working on fostering partnerships with several Howard County schools to provide fundraising opportunities for students, and to support any program — academic or extracurricular — that facilitates and accelerates learning.

The two former principals have a lot planned for the cupcakery once it's open. Cothorne has 32 different recipes, including an "adult line" of cocktail-inspired cupcakes available in the store every third Friday of the month for a "Cupcake Happy Hour." The two are also planning to introduce a line of cookies — hence the "cooks" in Cooks 'N Cakes.

Cothorne and Kerlina are billing Cooks 'N Cakes as the "home of the two-touch cupcake." At most, only two people will touch a customer's cupcake before the customers themselves. It's just another aspect of the business the two hope will make a difference to their customers.

"Everyone needs something sweet to get them through the day," Cothorne said.

The two admitted that, facing the disenchantment at their jobs, moving to other school systems was an option. It just wasn't a good one.

"It's a global problem," Cothorne said. "It was the whole assessment piece that was driving me bonkers. We have a laser focus on data, and everything's numbers, numbers, numbers, and it was not about the kid. It was about their score. But did they learn anything? Did they enjoy the process of learning? … It's different (elsewhere), but it's the same. You don't walk away from a 17-, 18-year career and not really think about what you're doing."

"So, here we are," Kerlina said, "starting over."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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