Students prepare to serve lunch in the Bernie’s Place Kitchen. Photo courtesy of MSD Lawrence Township.
Lunch is served—almost.
Just before 11 o’clock on a weekday morning, the restaurant is about to open, but there are last-minute instructions for the staff.
Gracie Sahm, a culinary arts teacher for Lawrence Township schools, needs to emphasize the “six steps of service” for the high school students at Bernie’s Place, a teaching restaurant open to the public. At the McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology, the curriculum includes valuable life lessons.
“Some of them are very shy,” Sahm says. The first job of a server—the first of the six steps—is to greet the customer, which can be challenging for those unused to dealing with the public.
“A lot of them are not comfortable at all—they say, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it’ because they’re not used to speaking to adults,” Sahm says.
Communication is key at Bernie’s Place
But crafting the menus, fixing the food, greeting the public, and having those conversations helps students grow.
“I just always tell them, ‘You’re not going to be working in a cave by yourself. You have to learn to communicate with all different types of people.’”
If there’s a secret sauce at Bernie’s Place—or the Studio 75 cosmetology shop, the McKenzie Center’s auto repair, information technology, and other classes—it’s the value of hands-on experience in bringing to life the lessons of the classroom.
The state of Indiana promotes programs like this through the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, formed to help grow the state’s pool of talent.
“Today’s cutting-edge, rigorous, and relevant Career and Technical Education (CTE) prepares youth and adults for a wide range of high-wage, high-skill, in-demand careers,” the group says.
Career prep begins early
McKenzie offers 15 national certifications guided by advisory boards of industry pros, who review the programs annually and talk with students about in-demand career fields. The center also works with business partners, including Community Health Network, Rolls-Royce, and others.
In an increasingly complex and tech-driven world, college and career preparation has to begin early, Shawn Smith, superintendent of Lawrence Township schools, told the Indianapolis Business Journal.
“We must help children identify their gifts, interests, and potential at an early age while exposing them to a variety of career opportunities,” he said.
“By high school, students should be applying skills to solve real-world industry problems instead of doing initial industry exploration.”
The learning includes critical thinking and communication, abilities especially valued by employers.
“Soft skills are everyday interpersonal skills that job seekers need to succeed on the job,” the U.S. Department of Labor says. “They include communicating clearly and appropriately, remembering work directions, working well with others, and knowing how to solve problems.”
Growing skills—and confidence
Indiana has seen a surge in CTE enrollment, with more than 228,000 students in career programs this year, or about 65 percent of all high school students.
At Bernie’s Place, the work is hard, but students say there’s nothing else like it.
“I like the hands-on experience,” senior Auhnice Jones said. “There’s so much I’ve learned here, and we actually have a lot of fun.
Senior Olivia Mudd, who wants to be an entrepreneur and open her own bakery, won a first-place prize in baking in the regional SkillsUSA Indiana competition and is trying for the statewide title in April. She’s always been shy but found a family atmosphere—and new confidence—in the program.
“I’ve learned more here than I ever thought I would,” she said. “I doubted myself in the past, but this made me realize how many things I can do when I really put my mind to it.”
Stop By Bernie’s Place for a Great Meal and Friendly Student Staff
Bernie’s Place is on the west side of the McKenzie Center, at 7250 East 75th St. It’s open Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. when school is in session.
For the menu and other information, see: https://mcit.ltschools.org/quicklinks/bernies-place