In the culinary room at Fivay High School, more than 100 aspiring chefs and cooking hobbyists took their midterm practical exam. Instead of No. 2 pencils and Scantron sheets, however, the students used icing, gingerbread cookies, and more Christmas snacks and candies than you can imagine.
In just a week, a gingerbread village arose from several dozen pounds of flour, sugar and molasses. The town square was surrounded by a firehouse decorated with Big Red gum bricks, a theater with a fondant icing Santa Claus and government buildings with melted Jolly Rancher stained-glass windows.
"These kids are unbelievable," said culinary teacher Stefanie Spack-Adams. "Once you tap into them and get them hooked (on the culinary arts), they're yours."
Surrounding the town was a ring of houses built and decorated from kits by the Culinary I students. Piped icing and candy lights adorned the rooftops and pretzels and peppermints fenced in the powdered sugar and shaved coconut lawns.
While the gingerbread architects hunched over their construction sites, curious students passing by the window pressed their noses against the glass, leaving smudges.
For some students, including Meghan Demarco, 17, this was the first time they'd ever made and decorated a gingerbread house. She came up with the pretzel fence and second-floor candy balcony for her group's house.
"The gingerbread house experience was neat," Demarco said. "It gave everyone in class great creative ideas and we got to create what we were interested in."
The exam helped students hone icing piping and other baking skills and forced them to work together as a team to hold together gingerbread buildings until the icing mortar that held them together hardened. Some students even worked outside of class.
"It was a lot of work," said Megan Garrett, 18. "People stayed for hours after school hand-making everything."
Each student brought in different sweets to decorate with, including Little Debbie Christmas tree cakes, marshmallows for snowmen and Sour Patch Kids to populate the village.
The students pay lab fees at the beginning of each school year to supplement the cost of ingredients for their food projects. Spack-Adams also asks parents to pick up extra bags of flour and sugar during grocery store trips — whatever they can afford to donate to the class.
The program has been severely revamped since August, when Spack-Adams started at Fivay. She said the culinary program operated more like a home economics class in the past and she's raised the standards.
"The rigor and the accountability has increased," Spack-Adams said. "This is a privilege. This is not something we have to give you and it's a privilege to work and attend class in this beautiful facility and to do what other kids in the school can't."
Students will now be expected to maintain a 2.5 GPA overall and a "C" average in the culinary program.
Fivay is working on the certification for a hospitality and tourism academy at the school and, Spack-Adams said, the culinary program is just one leg of that.
The program also promotes cultural diversity and during the classes' Thanksgiving projects, students were able to see how different cultures have contributed to food by sharing what their families make for the holidays.
"They get to see cultural differences just from the classroom," Spack-Adams said.
Spack-Adams, who got a degree in biomedical sciences and minored in biophysics and public health before choosing culinary school over medical school, also incorporates food science into the curriculum.
"It's not enough to make food taste good and look pretty," Spack-Adams said. They should know the science behind cooking and baking.
"I like to show them that there's more than being a TV chef," she added.
The gingerbread community, named "Spackington Village" by the students, began with sketches and cardboard templates and ended with a contest judged by other teachers and school administration. The categories were Most Creative Decorating, Most Ingenuity with Use of Candy and Best Structure.
"Each house has something special about it," said Ron Vickery, a guidance counselor and one of the judges.