Students at the Jacobson Culinary Academy pose outside the building on the Tarpon Springs High School campus.
TARPON SPRINGS – Students from the Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy at Tarpon Springs High School have gone on to the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts; in fact, nearly one-third of graduates continue on to culinary schools. They work at Bern’s Steak House, Sweet Caroline’s Bakery and The Lobster Pot. And now, the school can add another line to its résume: accreditation from the American Culinary Federation.
Chef Cathleen Ryan, director at the Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy, began the process with an application and extensive questionnaire that questioned everything from sanitation habits in the program to how much time instructors spend with their students (Ryan calculated an estimated 1,200 hours per student over their four years at Tarpon Springs High School).
“The self-study was tough,” Ryan said. “We really had to look at ourselves under a microscope and make sure our standards align with theirs.”
Then, on Jan. 10, representatives from the ACF, North America’s largest professional chef’s organization, spent the day at the academy, observing everyday instruction and students’ skills.
One student presented her senior project: items off of a fictional restaurant menu that included calamari and tilapia. Another served chicken curry soup. And, as per Friday tradition, the pastry classes presented 12 different types of cupcakes for a weekly competition. Executive Chef Tony DeVincenzo’s freshman class was working on knife cuts.
“They wanted to see how and what we teach,” Ryan said, “but also how engaged the students are in learning.”
The ACF representatives were also met at the academy by various officials from Pinellas County, including Tarpon Springs Mayor David Archie and Pinellas County School Board Chairperson Robin Wikle.
“No one has the community support that we have,” Ryan said. “We get donations from Publix, Hooters, Outback and the Ryan Wells Foundation, but we also get professionals in the community coming in to help our students.”
On Jan. 26, the Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy became the fifth high school in Florida to gain ACF accreditation, joining Titusville High School, The Villages High School, Eustis High School, and the Institute of Culinary Arts at Eastside High School in Gainesville. With the accreditation, Tarpon Springs High School now has an ally in the ACF in the fight for federal money, as well as the chance for students to take an exam to gain Certified Junior Culinarian status that could affect employment opportunities and salary. The Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts already accept credit transfers from Tarpon Springs High School, an arrangement that DeVincenzo said often allows students to begin college with a year worth of credits already completed.
The accreditation will only last five years, at which point the academy can reapply with ACF for a renewal, including another visit from ACF representatives to judge the academy again.
But for now, the instructors and students – between 150 and 170 each year – at the Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy will continue doing what they’ve been doing for years: excelling.
“This is a special program with special students,” DeVincenzo said. “We’re teaching them a life skill.”