Students eat up learning in food service class


The students in Phyllis Zimmerman's food service class don't have any written exams, but there's a test every day -- preparing lunch for their teachers, principal and even the president of the Hannah More School in Reisterstown.

It's a service for the faculty and staff, who pay for the lunches delivered to their offices and classrooms, and a chance for students to get real-life experience and pats-on-their-backs at the private, nonprofit school for severely emotionally disturbed middle and high school students.

"The food is delicious," said Lucille Wagner, the school's development director. "You can't beat it for the price. And we get it delivered to us with a smile."

The class gives the students "more immediate signs of gratification, more chances to boost their self-esteem" as they prepare a proper turkey club -- a faculty favorite -- or build a beautiful burger, said Mrs. Zimmerman, who is teacher, menu planner, purchasing agent and all-around deli manager.

The students prepare 20 meals a day from Dillie's Deli menu, which includes typical fare: sandwiches, soup, salads, baked potatoes with different toppings, pizza, nachos and macaroni and cheese.

One student takes orders and money in the morning. Another delivers the food for early or late lunch. The student chefs prepare the food in the school's kitchen and put their names on each item they make.

"That keeps everybody accountable," said Mrs. Zimmerman, who started Dillie's several years ago as an outgrowth of her food service class. The deli got its name from the dill pickle it serves with every sandwich.

Mrs Zimmerman said her students tend to "do better with hands-on stuff." Gerald, 15, agreed.

"Before I came into this class, I was doing bad, my grades and everything," he said. Now he has been "student of the week" for four weeks. Among other accomplishments, he is proud of learning how to cut up a chicken -- and of doing four in one day.

Toni Prodey, his homeroom teacher, was skeptical about transferring Gerald to food service after he misbehaved in another course.

"I was the first to say 'I don't think so,' but he came in here and really performed," Ms. Prodey said. His grades have improved, too.

Gerald went right to work during one recent class, cutting up ingredients for the soup du week, turkey vegetable, and then moving from job to job as he was needed.

Others take a nudge or two.

"Can you slice the onions?" Mrs. Zimmerman asked Heather.

"Kind of not," the young woman replied.

"Kind of not? Well, I'll tell you what. I'll start them," said the teacher, who has 10 students in the two classes that staff the deli.

Dillie's students also prepare several larger dinners, including for the annual parents' night spaghetti supper and the spring sports banquet.

Food service is the strongest component of the school's vocational training, said Principal Michael Kerins. "It truly begins to prepare the students for some work in food service. We've had several students who have left here who have gone on to culinary college."

The course is an elective that satisfies the industrial arts requirements for high school graduation. Students can take it as many years as they like.

Mr. Kerins said he would like to see Dillie's Deli expand into a full-service cafe, where the students could serve faculty and staff lunches and even cater business meals for area firms.

For a fall fund-raising auction, the students offered lunch for 20 to the highest bidder. The company that received it "was so impressed that they ordered another lunch," Mr. Kerins said.

The Hannah More School, with about 100 students ages 11 to 21, has served emotionally disabled students since it was founded in 1978 as The Hannah More Center School. Before that, the campus was the Hannah More Academy, a private Episcopalian girls' boarding school that closed in the mid-1970s.

Now, the students come from around the metropolitan area, referred by public schools that can't deal with the young people's needs. Their behavior problems may stem from developmental and behavior disorders, mental illnesses, such as depression, or from living in abusive and dysfunctional homes.

About 10 percent of the school's students return to public school each year, said school president Mark Waldman. And the drop-out rate is about 5 percent, well below the national average for students with emotional disabilities.

Classes have seven to nine students, with a teacher and teacher's aide. Students also receive vocational training, individual and group therapy and help with behavior management.

"You get more attention at Hannah More," said Shannon, 16. "The classes are smaller, and the teachers are more aware of your problems. You have a better chance."

Some students feel like Shannon, who has spent more than two years at Hannah More but wants to go back to her public school because she misses her friends. She said she won't be making the move soon, though, because "I haven't been doing too good this year."

Nevertheless, she is an apt student in Mrs. Zimmerman's class. "I like cooking anything," she said. "I just don't like cleaning up."

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