Recipe for success: How Wenonah High teacher inspires excellence in city school students

By The Birmingham Education Foundation

Special to The Times

Diann Pilgrim (Provided photo)
Diann Pilgrim (Provided photo)

If you’re making a visit to Diann Pilgrim’s class at Wenonah High School in Southwest Birmingham, you’d better bring your appetite.

On any given day of the week, her students are experimenting in the school’s professional-grade test kitchen, memorizing and perfecting recipes for an upcoming competition, an awards-ceremony spaghetti dinner, or a midafternoon snack. And, aside from being very promising aspiring chefs, her students are nothing if not gracious and generous hosts.

This week students are preparing for the 14th Annual Unity Breakfast on Friday, Feb. 24, where more than 800 guests, including special guest speaker the Rev. Al Sharpton, will be served.

Pilgrim has been the Family and Consumer Sciences teacher at Wenonah High School since 1988—and she was there when the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism (AOHT) opened its doors to the first class of students at the new Wenonah High in 2007.

Now, Pilgrim is using her two decades worth of experience to train a generation of learners who have dedicated their academic lives to a new kind of high school curriculum that is both rigorous and relevant to their career interests and aspirations. This is the founding principle of the career academy model, a principle Pilgrim agrees with.

“I believe that students who have positive experiences will be inspired by their own love for learning and life,” she said. “I also believe that students learn best by participating in hands-on activities and engaging in activities that are relevant and can easily be incorporated into their lives.”

Pilgrim holds a bachelor’s degree in home economics from Samford University and a master’s degree in home economics from the University of Montevallo, as well as multiple credentials (National Restaurant Association Educational ProStart levels I through III) that demonstrate her commitment to staying on top of trends and current standards in the culinary industry.

Aside from the wealth of knowledge and experience that Pilgrim shares with students inside the school, she also dedicates time to learning experiences outside the classroom. Those include arranging complex and multipart job-shadowing experiences throughout the Birmingham community and engaging local postsecondary partners, such as Lawson State Community College; Jefferson State Community College; Samford University; and Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College.

Pilgrim’s students are well known for their success at competitions—a realization of the hard work they put into preparing, as well as an homage to the patience and support Pilgrim gives them during the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the events.

In 2015, Pilgrim’s students swept competition awards, earning eight top-three titles. Those included medals at a local Beef Cook-Off and a Student’s Taking Action with Recognition (STAR) event in Montgomery, in addition to individual and group medals at Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) meetings.

The FCCLA is an organization that aims to help youth in public and private schools with family bonds, careers, and participation in the community. Pilgrim’s students have represented Alabama in the national competition at the FCCLA’s National Leadership Meeting in Washington, D.C., where they competed against young people from all 50 states.

The complex structure of Wenonah’s AOHT contributes to the success of her students, Pilgrim said.

“These students develop college- and career-ready skills that prepare them to be tomorrow’s hospitality industry leaders with the knowledge, practical training, leadership, and skills necessary to succeed in today’s global economy,” she says. “It is my desire that every student leaves the classroom inspired to pursue their dreams, so I constantly remind them of the importance of having passion and love for what you choose to do in life because I know that passion and love will inspire others.”

This article originally appeared on edbirmingham.org, the website of the Birmingham Education Foundation.