Hunts Point school offers second chance

Wildcat Academy cooks up a new way to educate

By Sendy Tavera

Photo by John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy
The dining room in the American Bank Note Building.

Where much of the world’s money was once produced, today students are cooking and baking, in a charter school designed to give them a second chance to earn a high school diploma.

In its name, the Bank Note Café on the fourth floor of the American Bank Note Building on Lafayette Avenue, pays homage to the huge brick factory’s past. But now, instead of printing money and stock certificates, the space incorporates the kitchen and dining room of the John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy, an alternative high school for students who have dropped out of or been dismissed from regular schools.

The school has a branch in Manhattan, as well, but Hunts Point houses its only in-house internship site.

Offering a different way of learning, Wildcat has its students alternate every other week between classroom study and work. Students take academic courses one week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the following week they report to an internship in a variety of fields and locations, where they work, on average, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., receiving a stipend for their labor.

The 250 students in the Bronx branch have amassed fewer than 15 high school credits, and a handful never finished eighth grade. Students who are promoted to the 11th and 12th grades go to the Manhattan branch.

Fewer than 8 percent drop out, and 20 percent plan to attend a four-year college, according to the latest state school report card.

For Derrick Astwood, 19, the big difference between Wildcat Academy and the school he left is the attention he gets from his teachers. “Wildcat Academy is more personal, and the teachers care if you do the work. At Truman it’s everybody for themselves,” he said.

Evander Childs High School dismissed Rennaye Lewis, 18. When she transferred to Wildcat, Lewis says, she learned manners, discipline, and how to have fun while learning. And she’s learned how to be a professional. “This is a great school,” she said. “Where else can you go and get paid to learn?”

Wildcat Academy’s culinary internship has three stages. Before students can go into the kitchen, they must master a college culinary textbook. Once they pass an exam testing their knowledge of sanitation with a score of 80 percent or higher, they officially become part of the culinary program. There, they begin by learning knife skills, which draw on mathematics by requiring them to figure out measurement and proportions.

Students in Culinary 2 wear red hats, and students in Culinary 3 wear black ones. They work together to prepare the meals that will either be sold in the school, served at catered events, or sold to businesses housed in the Bank Note Building.

Started in February 2004, the culinary program had humble beginnings. Until the café’s kitchen opened in December 2005, it operated out of the weight room in the school’s gym. Students had to use plug-in stoves and hot plates.

“I had a lot of friends in the industry and borrowed their equipment,” recalled Chef Bill Peacock, a CUNY City Tech graduate who also studied in France.

Chef Peacock and his students would set up the weight room according to what was on the day’s agenda. “Everything took three times as long, and the only running water we had was down the hall,” Peacock said.

Today, thanks to a $1 million grant from the Charles Hayden Foundation, golden chandeliers hang from the ceiling of the spacious dining room.

Diners can look out through the window at Hunts Point or can watch what’s happening in the kitchen through a transparent wall that separates the kitchen from the dining room.

Stuffed chicken, cookies, slices of corn bread, chili, baked potatoes, and French fries are just a few of the dishes students prepare on a regular basis.

Peacock says he wants to give his students a sense of what the real world is like. The students aren’t doing their jobs “if I have to lift a finger,” he says.

His lessons include mock interviews, how to use proper language, and lessons on healthy eating. He says he wants to give his students the chance to experience good quality food, as well as making it.

Peacock motivates the students with raises in the stipends they receive for participating in the program. If they are late, he docks their pay.

“If you don’t want to be in the program, you shouldn’t be there, because Chef Bill will make you work hard,” said Aisha Powell.

Powell, 17, who made the decision to come to Wildcat Academy because she was too young to get a GED and did not want to continue in the Job Corps, said, “I’ve learned how to control my temper when Chef Peacock is not in the kitchen,” although she sometimes resents taking orders from the culinary lab technician, the student whose leadership potential earns him or her the right to supervise in the kitchen.

Principal Marc Donald has high hopes for the culinary program. He wants the café to become a full service facility with two certified teaching chefs and 50-80 students. It’s taken the first steps to achieving that vision thanks to one student who has turned out to be an entrepreneur.

Sean Evens, 19, a former student at William E. Grady Vocational High School in Brooklyn, was going around the vast Bank Note Building handing out the school’s menus when someone asked him if the café delivered. He replied he would take the order and deliver it himself. As a result, the Bank Note Café found a promising new avenue for its business. It now has a delivery service to the many businesses in the building.

Evens said he turned his academic life around when he decided that he wanted to succeed and realized that nothing was going to be handed to him. Now he hopes to have his own business one day.

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