Educator Spotlight: Diann Pilgrim, Wenonah High School


Ms. Pilgrim (center) and her students volunteering at the Wenonah High School 10th Annual Unity Breakfast this year, during which time they prepared food for and served over 500 guests.

If you’re making a visit to Diann Pilgrim’s class at Wenonah, you better bring your appetite.

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

Ms. Pilgrim has been the Family & Consumer Sciences teacher at Wenonah High School since 1988, and when the Academy of Hospitality & Tourism opened its doors to the first class of students in 2013, she was there, too. Now, she is using her two decades worth of experience adapted for a generation of learners who dedicate three years of 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 principal of the career academy model, and one that Mrs. Pilgrim agrees with.

I believe that students with a positive experience will be inspired by their own love for learning and life,” she says. “and I 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 B.S. in Home Economics from Samford University and an M.A.T in Home Economics from Montevallo, as well as multiple credentials (ServSafe and National Restaurant Association Educational ProStart Levels I-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 of the school’s four (eight) walls, she also dedicates a significant effort to facilitating authentic learning experiences outside of the classroom, arranging complex and multi-part job shadowing experiences all over the Birmingham community and engaging local post-secondary partners such as Lawson State Community College, Jefferson State Community College, Samford University and Culinard, the culinary institute of Virginia College.

11th-grade Wenonah Academy students 'pinning' incoming 10th-graders at last year's induction ceremony.

11th-grade Wenonah Academy students ‘pinning’ incoming 10th graders at last year’s induction ceremony.

Pilgrim’s students are also well known in the community for their success at competitions, a realization of the hard work they put into preparing, and a homage to the patience and support that Pilgrim gives them in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the events. This spring, Pilgrim’s students swept competition awards, earning 8 top-three titles. At the local Beef Cook-off, Gerell Robinson, John Goodwin, and Miles Hopkins took first through third place, respectively, and Gerell then went on to win second place at Regionals. Then, at STAR (Student’s Taking Action with Recognition) Events in Montgomery, 10 FCCLA students competed in individual and group competitions and (wait for it) all 10 were selected as First Place State Winners in their events. Winners included Aria Bennett, Kiaria Murray, and Carlo Wilkerson for, “Power up Wenonah”, a project that focused on addressing sports nutrition with the athletes at our school; Errieol Milliner, Ivoriel Webb, and Teja Smith for “Better Together,” a project designed to teach Wenonah students and their families the importance of eating dinner together; Mia Freeman, Jenai McCall, and Keyonta Williams for “Wild Out Wednesday,” a Focus on Children project focused on the importance of health and fitness with teenagers; and ShaRhonda Bandy in the Job Interview event.

Because of this enormous accomplishment, Pilgrim’s students will have the opportunity to represent Alabama in the national competition at the FCCLA National Leadership Meeting in Washington,  D.C. on July 4- 10 and are working hard to raise money to cover expenses for the trip.  As you can imagine, and as Pilgrim notes, “Having the opportunity to compete against all fifty states will be a tremendous learning experience for our students,” among so many others tremendous learning experiences that she is creating for them here at home.

Pilgrim with students at the Trossplex for a recent Bridging the Gap event highlighting careers in the business of sports: event management, marketing, and facilities.

Pilgrim with students at the Trossplex for a recent Bridging the Gap event highlighting careers in the business of sports: event management, marketing, and facilities.

With all that being said, if you think Pilgrim attributes her students’ success to herself, she’d argue you’re wrong. Pilgrim appreciates the complex structure of the Academy, and how all of the moving pieces fit together to support the success of her students.  Of the journey they take upon entering in the tenth grade, Pilgrim notes, “These students develop college-and-career ready skills to prepare students for tomorrow’s hospitality industry leaders with the knowledge, practical training, leadership and skills necessary to succeed in today’s global economy.  They start with an introduction to hospitality and tourism, then have the opportunity to train in a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen.  As members of the academy, they do job shadowing and paid summer internships, and receive training in resume writing, dressing and preparing for the  job interview in their classes and as part of programs like Bridging the Gap and the Career Development Conference.”

At events and competitions and even walking down the halls of the Academy wing at the school, you can tell there is something different about these kids: firm handshakes and confident greetings convey a lifetime of ambitions, but also the self-assurance and determination to pursue them – a state of mind that Ms. Pilgrim undoubtedly has something to do with.

It is my desire that each student leave the classroom inspired to pursue their dreams,” she says. “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.”

On the phone with Pilgrim at the end of the day, I thank her for taking the time to send me notes for this newsletter piece, and I can hear her smile through the phone when she says, “You all do so much to make our lives easier and provide opportunities for the students, I’m happy to do it.” But it’s the teachers like Ms. Pilgrim – whose unwavering support for her students and passion for her job fill every room she walks into like the smell of freshly baked cookies – that make our lives easier.  Her offer is an endless wave of encouraging smiles and other subtle pats-on-backs that (as I think she would want them to) inspire us to do the same.

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