8th-graders dig into full course

Pupils at Patuxent Valley Middle School are served lessons in running a restaurant


Three pots of gumbo are simmering on a stove in the family and consumer science classroom at Patuxent Valley Middle School.

Some pupils are cutting up strawberries and apples for fruit salad; others are filling pitchers with pink lemonade and iced tea. Loaves of bread are warming in one oven, aluminum pans of fettuccine Alfredo take up another.

"You better not have any chewing gum in your mouth," teacher Eileen Reid bellows to no one in particular.

As desks are covered with tablecloths and set with cloth napkins and plastic cutlery, parents and teachers are starting to line up outside the door for the Bulldog Restaurant, a once-a-quarter event that has become a highlight of the eighth-grade experience at Patuxent Valley.

It is 7:40 a.m. Thursday.

"There's the eighth-grade dance, the picnic and this," said Sam Nuss, who had applied for and won the job of restaurant manager. "Those are the three cool things. I've kind of been looking forward to this since sixth grade."

While county high schools have culinary programs and some middle schools offer a version of a cooking program, the restaurant at Patuxent Valley is unique, said Richard Weisenhoff, the county's coordinator for career and technology, who was seated and waiting for his food.

He said he likes to eat at the restaurant every quarter to support the program. "This is unique," he said. "We don't have that in other schools."

The restaurant - named for the school mascot - gives students the opportunity to run the show. They decide what they will serve, cook the food, design the menus, set the tables, take the orders, bring the food to the guests and clean up. The customers are parents and other family members, as well as teachers.

On this day, customers could choose from three entrees - gumbo, fettuccine or the morning-appropriate pancakes with strawberry topping. Chicken wings, quesadillas or potato wedges for appetizers, and cheesecake, chocolate mousse, cake and ice cream sundaes for dessert were also on the menu.

While many diners took the easy path and went for the pancakes, others made a point of ordering whatever dish their child had prepared. It takes a certain kind of parental devotion to tuck into a plate of garlicky, cheesy pasta before 9 a.m.

The restaurant is open early in the morning because that is the normal time for the class, said Sheila Schwing, the instructional assistant. A second class opened the restaurant Friday morning.

"For weeks, we've been looking forward to this," said Donna Hitesman, mother of Kelsie Hitesman, who was sitting with husband Michael and daughter Meagan, 9. Donna, who is pregnant, ordered pancakes, while the rest of the family chose the fettuccine.

"We've all been looking forward to this," said Kelsie, who was maitre d'. Reid requires that students apply for the top jobs, as part of her goal of giving them real-life experience.

The Bulldog Restaurant was the brainchild of Reid and Principal Sterlind Burke. Over the years, it has grown more elaborate, said Reid.

Burke, who had filled a plate with pasta, sausage links and cheesecake, to take back to his office, said, "Eileen and I, back in 1997, starting talking about this because we wanted to give a bit more authenticity to the eighth-grade experience. They get to know everything, not just cooking."

Burke and others noted that pupils in the family and consumer science class - what used to be known as home economics - are at all academic levels, from special education to advanced placement, and some of them do not speak English as their first language. Because the restaurant is so hands-on, it gives all students a chance to shine.

"They take their job very seriously," said English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher Jenifer Ludovico, who was waiting to eat.

At this restaurant, details count. Servers wore maroon aprons with matching ties. Chefs wore toques. Pancakes were plated with an artful swirl of whipped topping and a dollop of fruit.

The large classroom has six stations, each with its own oven, and all were busy.

Before the parents arrived, Reid grabbed a loaf of bread that students were about to cut, and put it in the oven to warm. "Kitchen 2 needs help with the fruit salad," she said.

"Miss Reid, are all the tables supposed to have syrup and milk?" Kelsie asked.

"No - we only have so many servers," said Reid, as she bustled around the room.

At 8:05, customers were shown to their seats and handed menus. Servers came by with mugs of coffee. George and Edy Clayton, the parents of Brittany Smith and Jessica Clayton, arrived with George's mother, Barbara Smith. All ordered the pasta, which their daughters had made.

Eating it so early in the morning didn't seem difficult after all. "It's very good," said Smith, as she took bite after bite.

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