Bright sparks were flying at Danforth Collegiate last week, and not only in the auto shop.
Talented high school students from southeast Toronto challenged each other in the first round of a tech skills contest with events from aesthetics to welding, 3D animation to four-person house building.
Hosted March 21 at Danforth Collegiate, the Secondary Technological Skills Competition is one of the qualifying rounds that will send about 100 of Toronto’s top students to the Ontario final in Waterloo this May.
Wearing her chef’s whites and with a clipboard in hand, Danforth graduate and former Skills Canada medalist Tamara Martell returned to her old school this year as a judge, taking notes as baking students worked the steel counters around her kneading yeast rolls, glazing cream puffs and filling lemon meringue pies.
Martell said the skills contest played “a huge part” in her own decision to be a pastry chef and then a restaurant manager.
In 2008, while still at Danforth, she won at Waterloo and flew with the Ontario team for an epic bake-off‚ competing at one of dozens of gas ovens set up on the floor of the Calgary Saddledome.
“For the first five minutes, I think I just stood there thinking, ‘Oh my God what do I do’,” Martell said, laughing. “We felt like cattle.”
Martell’s baking won a bronze that day, giving her plenty of confidence when she started her next year at George Brown College.
“I had a big ego,” she said. “I felt I knew everything – not the case.”
A Skills Canada medal looks good on a resumé, but win or lose, students say the contest is worth signing up for.
That’s why Jupe Dyson Tam entered the auto paint contest this year. The Grade 12 Danforth student, who narrowly lost to the national champion last year, says he isn’t even enrolled in an auto class this term. Next year, he’s getting set to enter mechanical engineering at George Brown‚ a path some people tell him is “academic.”
“I don’t consider myself an academic, but other people do,” said Dyson Tam, wiping down a dented fender in the school’s ventilated paint booth. As for mechanical engineering, he said, “It gives me some design and some shop‚ a little bit of both.”
Not every student in a tech-coded class will follow a straight career track from that class to a college program or a job, says Sean Meikle, a former chef who now teaches hospitality at Danforth Collegiate.
But for those students who do aim for a trades career, Meikle says the school board’s current approach, which includes industry certifications, job-site tours and co-op programs, is a big improvement on the past.
“I started cooking when I was in high school, at 13, 14 years old,” he said. “It was the first thing that I was really good at and I really enjoyed the culture of restaurants and food.”
But at the time, Meikle had to find his own way. His school didn’t have a real culinary program like the one at Danforth – the school is now building its fifth teaching kitchen – nor did he get good advice from staff.
When a Grade 10 guidance counsellor heard about Meikle’s chef plans, he was told to drop out since he could already start apprenticing.
“Thank God I didn’t take that advice, because I certainly wouldn’t be teaching high school today,” Meikle said.
Ongoing labour disputes by teachers meant fewer skills contests in the city this year – Toronto’s two northern competitions had to be called off for lack of volunteers.
Even without labour disputes, Corbett said many Toronto schools can’t field students for the contest because they don’t run any tech-coded classes, which are all optional programs.
“I see that as a problem,” he said. “I think it’s got a place in all schools. I think those opportunities, ideally, would be available to all kids.”