Career Classroom: Vo-tech students benefit from offering professional services to community

Across New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools, students offer their communities a wide range of services, from cosmetology and catering to auto repair and child care. The students’ enthusiasm and commitment to quality has led to high customer satisfaction and praise for their enterprises.

“Our districts support these student-run operations to provide invaluable work experience — but with the safety net of having an instructor around to provide oversight and guidance when needed,” said Michael Dicken, superintendent of Gloucester County Institute of Technology and president of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools. 

Kendall Dolan, a senior cosmetology student at Warren County Technical School, currently works in the on-campus Glamour Boutique Salon. She has appreciated the opportunity to have a “safe space to learn and test out skills.” 

And clients, like Barbara Horne, have enjoyed the experience as well. Horne has frequented Glamour Boutique since moving to Hopatcong about five years ago. Before that, she was a 10-year client of Morris County Vocational School District’s cosmetology clinic. She confidently switched to Glamour Boutique, knowing instructor Tina Giraldi and her students run it. Giraldi previously held a similar role at MCVSD’s clinic.  

“I’ve tried just about every service offered — facials, keratin smoothing, blowouts, highlights and root touchups,” Horne said. “I think the color services are most popular with clients; I doubt a professional salon can do better, nor do they have better products.”

Giraldi stressed the importance of students using the same products found in most high-end salons. This not only helps them prepare for future employment, but it helps them deliver quality results for Glamour Boutique clients. The combination of quality with affordability is what keeps the salon busy. 

“You would spend hundreds at a salon for a treatment like keratin, when we can offer it for a fraction of the price,” Giraldi said. “So, clients win, and the students win by strengthening their skills and gaining confidence.”

“The value is second to none,” Horne agreed. “While the cost of services no doubt brings clients in, the full experience keeps us coming back. Unlike at a traditional salon that aims to get clients in and out quickly, here, you get the full attention of the students providing the services. It is relaxing, and the results are outstanding.”

At Burlington County Institute of Technology, another group of students has set the bar high for a service provided to the youngest community members. Students in the district’s Future Educators program, formerly Early Childhood Education, work alongside preschool staff to engage and educate children enrolled in the BCIT Childcare Center. The center offers two classes: preschool, serving ages 2.5 to 4, and PreK, with students ages 4 to 5.

Burlington County Institute of Technology freshman Michelle Thompson leads a circle time lesson at the BCIT Childcare Center. ­(Burlington County Institute of Technology)

Erika Fine, who teaches the Future Educators program, said her students begin planning, designing and presenting lessons in the preschool by the end of their first year: “By the time they reach sophomore year, they are full steam ahead.”

“What this means for our preschool families is about 65 teachers are looking out for their child — the parents like that,” Fine said.

She added that families also appreciate the reasonable cost of $155 a week for classrooms open 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. — a span much longer than most state-funded pre-K programs. But, what really impacts the benefit-cost ratio are the high school students who infuse energy and enthusiasm into each lesson they teach. 

“We model our curriculum off of what they are doing in other schools, but, because our high school students are planning and teaching for a grade, they develop some of the most incredible lessons that are fun, interactive and, sometimes, pretty messy,” Fine said. 

From a rocket launch to learning about muscles while playing on the playground, the lessons orchestrated by the high school students all meet at least two New Jersey state standards. They also are written following the same format students will eventually use in college and as professionals. Such processes help students work toward industry-valued credentials, including the Child Development Accreditation, so they can go on to contribute even more to their communities as educators.

“This is the best of the best, as far as experiential and hands-on learning,” Fine said. “Everyone gets a good experience.”

It’s all about the experience at another student-run endeavor — the Trade Wins restaurant within the Somerset County Vocational and Technical High School. Here, culinary students work together and with different grade levels to prepare and serve meals for district staff.

“Even the outside of our facility has to look great,” said culinary instructor Mark Mastrobattista, who works closely with colleague Keith Johnson to aid students in all aspects of running the restaurant. “Then, when guests enter, the students greet and seat them; they practice establishing this most important relationship.”

Somerset County Vocational and Technical High School culinary student Rahshun Wroten makes dumplings in the school’s onsite restaurant, Trade Wins. ­(Somerset County Vocational and Technical High School)

Behind the scenes, students collaborate to plan a menu — and adjust it when things are out of stock or beyond budget. They prepare and cook the food, learning new techniques and experimenting with ingredients.

From mixing mocktails to smoking meats or running a live action station, Mastrobattista said the more he can introduce his students to, the better: “They have such a unique opportunity to learn a craft, practice it and get instant feedback from real guests.”

In addition to serving staff three days a week, the students host events at Trade Wins for groups like Somerset County’s school business administrators and superintendents. Senior and church groups also have repeat gatherings at the restaurant, appreciative of the exceptional food and service provided at an affordable price.

“We have been open for 15 years, so we have gained a reputation in our community, and we are happy to take on small events while still making time to teach,” explained Mastrobattista. 

Interactions between the guests and students can change the students’ attitudes and career ambitions. 

“Everyone wants to be in the kitchen, but students find motivation in the instant gratification that comes with being in the dining room. Guests smile, they say they want to come back and often say, ‘You did great!’” added Mastrobattista.

Find more student-led services

Visit to navigate to the website of the county vocational-technical school closest to you. Find out what services students in your district deliver with an attention to detail you will appreciate. As a patron, you help contribute to an important experience for students that gives them extra practice and confidence as they enter the workforce.

Additional offerings across the schools include automotive services, pet grooming, graphic design and more.

This series on education and industry is presented by the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.