Wilma Stephenson, whose dedication, tough love, and success with Frankford High School culinary students was immortalized in the 2009 documentary Pressure Cooker, was flabbergasted yesterday to learn that her kitchen classroom would get an extreme makeover, courtesy of the celebrity chef Rachael Ray.
"We're going to do one giant kitchen renovation," Ray said in a video played in the high school gym, where students had gathered for a pep rally honoring the school's award-winning cheerleaders.
Stephenson, who is also the school cheerleading coach, was stunned by the surprise.
At 64, she has labored in relative anonymity for most of her 41-year teaching career (all of it at Frankford, the last decade in culinary arts), helping her future chefs, many from poor and difficult circumstances, land up to $250,000 a year in scholarships.
The documentary, with an April 20 DVD release, shows a teacher who demands perfection - she isn't afraid to tell a student his crepe looks like one a kindergartner would make - but who also dotes on her charges with motherly concern and tangible support, paying for prom dresses and college-application fees.
"She really knew what was going on with us outside of school," said Christina Lewis, who won a $45,000 scholarship to the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and is, at 21, the poissonnier (fish chef) at the Union League. "She was my home away from home," Lewis said.
And it shows. In a school with a 40 percent dropout rate, 100 percent of her students graduate.
The film moved Stephenson out of obscurity. She was on BET, CBS Sunday Morning, NPR, and now, Rachael Ray.
Neither Ray's crew nor School District officials would venture a price range for the floor-to-ceiling renovation. Ray is providing appliances, pots and pans, knives, even new flooring, while School District staff will do the labor. Work was started immediately and will be completed by Monday.
Her students say she deserves to be honored.
"She is intimidating when you first meet her," says Angel Garcia, 21, who won a $65,000 scholarship to the Art Institute of Atlanta and is now at the Union League, working under chef Martin Hamann.
Garcia was 13 when his family moved to Philadelphia from New York, and he enrolled at Frankford on the advice of an aunt who had heard of Stephenson's success getting college scholarships for students.
"My father was incarcerated or on drugs most of the time. My mother kicked me out of the house. I became a father at 17."
At Frankford, Garcia routinely arrived as early as 6 a.m. and came in during spring break to practice with Stephenson.
Garcia says he still talks to Stephenson every day: "I have her stored in my phone as 'Mom.' "
She has many grateful grads.
Fatumata Dembele, who is featured in Pressure Cooker, arrived in the United States from Mali at 14 and knew almost no English when she enrolled in culinary arts at Frankford. Her father did not think she should be in school at all and opposed any consideration of college.
"She gave me a strength," says Dembele, who won a $62,000 scholarship to Monroe College in New Rochelle, N.Y. "She gave me hope."
Dembele interned in New York with the acclaimed chef Marcus Samuelsson and is now at Riingo, in Manhattan.
She will graduate with a bachelor's degree in hospitality management and a minor in forensic accounting. Such combos are common with Stephenson's grads. She advises against borrowing for college and encourages a backup career plan.
In an era when many teachers hesitate to hug students or tremble in the classroom for fear of violent attacks, Stephenson invites students to her Willingboro home for cookouts and sleepovers.
A product of the Pittsburgh projects, she is the youngest in a family of four.
"My parents taught me," Stephenson says, "that it's not a matter of where you lived, but what you did with it."
They insisted she earn her tuition in advance, so Stephenson cooked and cleaned for a Pittsburgh family before going to Cheyney University. Later, after her mother died, Stephenson lived at the YWCA in Wilmington and did factory work at DuPont Co. to save for her final years at Cheyney.
She has since earned graduate degrees from Drexel and Philadelphia Universities, and taken classes at Johnson and Wales University. Her husband of 40 years, Paul L., a five-time councilman and deputy mayor of Willingboro, died suddenly in June. Their two daughters earned advanced degrees.
In the classroom, Stephenson teaches her students to write the kind of personally revealing essays that colleges demand and most students dread. She prods them to come to terms with what they have endured and what they hope to achieve.
Most students are unaccustomed to the level of attention she gives them. It brings them to tears but instills lasting devotion: "I'd give a kidney for that lady," said Garcia. "Without a second thought."
With culinary teacher's delight comes turmoil
Frankford High School culinary arts teacher Wilma Stephenson was not entirely joyous yesterday.
Even as she learned that The Rachael Ray Show was paying for a floor-to-ceiling renovation of her kitchen classroom, Stephenson was grappling with news that the School District of Philadelphia would shift the focus of its 15 culinary-arts programs to make the most of available federal and state funds.
What's more, in fall 2012, the district may end its 18-year relationship with Careers Through Culinary Programs (C-Cap), a national nonprofit that has funneled nearly $4 million in scholarships to Philadelphia graduates. C-Cap coordinates an annual high school cooking competition in which every participant gets some college scholarship funds; awards range from $1,000 to $90,000 per student, and the money comes from the colleges.
The district pays C-Cap $15,000 a year to run preliminary and final competitions.
"The competitions are exciting and wonderful," said district spokesman Fernando Gallard, but in the last two years, far fewer of the district's 15 culinary arts programs have participated. "We need to figure out what happened," he said, "and if the C-Cap program is not working, we need to figure out what to do next."
Dropping C-Cap would effectively cut off the funnel of scholarships to Stephenson's students, the lure she relies on to motivate them.
In the last decade, Stephenson has had more students win C-Cap competitions than any other teacher in Philadelphia. That's why the directors of the documentary Pressure Cooker focused on her.
"If I could clone Wilma, I would," said Valarie Costanzo, who oversees all 15 culinary-arts programs for the district. "She really is an exemplary teacher. She works far more hours, and the students love her."
In addition to the C-Cap conundrum, the district will have to change its curriculum to get funds through a state "high-priority-occupation list," Costanzo said.
To qualify under the somewhat-complicated state framework, Costanzo said, 75 graduates would have to get jobs paying $13 an hour every year for five years. But the restaurant industry is known for starting newcomers at the bottom and making them sweat their way to the top.
Costanzo said she knows her students won't earn enough in "the back of the house."
"So, we need to teach all aspects of the food industry, not just back-of-the-house skills. We need to teach the front desk, banquet and event sales, hospitality, sales, and marketing, which are higher-paying jobs."
But Philadelphia may not be able to change the whole industry.
"I worked for free my first year," said Martin Hamann, who started as an apprentice at the Four Seasons under the esteemed Jean-Marie Lacroix (now retired) and is executive chef at the Union League.
"I didn't think I deserved to be paid. I was greener than broccoli."
- Dianna Marder