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Baking and Disabilities

Hello group members,

We already have an interesting discussion strand labeled "Cooking and Disabilities."   If you haven't read it already, I can suggest that it would be a interesting read for you.

When I read the Miami Herald newspaper today, I found an outstanding article that I knew I had to share.  I contacted the writer, Audra D.S. Burch to ask for permission to reprint her article.  Fortunately, she and the Miami Herald gave me permission to reprint the article in full with pictures.  I thank them for allowing my request.  After you read it, you will see why it interested me so much.   The entire article appears below.

If any of our members know of other such partnerships in baking (or cooking), I would love to hear about them.  Please add your comments to this message.

Thanks very much.

Rochelle Kenyon, SME

Disabilities in Adult Education


Program Teaches Special Needs Students the Art of Baking

By Audra D.S. Burch


02/04/2015 11:52 PM 


Former Publix bakery manager Pedro Diaz holds up a cake as students Bryan Tomlinson, 26, Sophia Cruz, 21, and others clap during the adult baking and pastry arts program at the J.R.E. Lee Education Center for special needs adults.


Former Publix bakery manager Pedro Diaz holds up a cake as students Bryan Tomlinson, 26, Sophia Cruz, 21, and others clap during the adult baking and pastry arts program at the J.R.E. Lee Education Center for special needs adults.   EMILY MICHOT MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Donning chef jackets, toques and unrelenting smiles, the special-needs young adults gather in an industrial kitchen and begin the journey from recipe to baked treat. Under the tutelage of a gentle, third-generation baker, they mix batter, roll dough, brush frosting and slide all that goodness into the oven hour after hour.

On paper, this is a vocational program that trains adults with disabilities on how to bake pastries. But it is so much more: lessons and learning for a group that has not always seen success. About a year from now, with concepts memorized and critical life skills mastered, the students will be ready for a workplace that values their proficiency but also appreciates their differences.

An extension of the Miami-Dade County Public School system, the year-old training program at J.R.E. Lee Education Center in South Miami has a class of 20 students who are taught the industry-standard baking skills needed to work at a bakery or in a bakery environment.

From a technical standpoint, everybody is learning a skill. But more than that, this is truly an incredible opportunity for all of our students to be able to participate in the major activity of every adult’s life, which is to go to work,” said Robin Matusow, counselor and coordinator of the baking program. “Just about every one of our students has either been unsuccessful in traditional training or unsuccessful at a job site, but not only for lack of skills, but lack of acceptance in society in general.’’



Bryan Tomlinson, 20, is happy with the design of a cake made during class Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015.

Bryan Tomlinson, 20, is happy with the design of a cake made during class Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015.      | Emily Michot Miami Herald Staff

›‹“I learned how to bake chocolate chip cookies. They are my favorite. I want to learn how to do a lot of stuff,” says Lexus Baker, 19, who hopes to one day work at a supermarket bakery. “The people here are very nice. After this, I might get a job. They want the best for us.”

Each student — part of the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation program — has a disability, intellectual or physical or both. Some happen to be autistic. Many struggle to read and write. But they all have the capacity to learn in the right setting. The students, ages 18 to 30 years old, all live in Miami-Dade, from Homestead to North Miami Beach.

We are teaching the same skills as a standard program but in a different way, in a way that is achievable for them. The goal is for everybody to be able to go to work,” Matusow said. “We also teach them about the work culture, about job interviews, how to appropriately interact with co-workers and how to deal with their supervisors.”

Compassionate teacher

Pedro Diaz, 48, a lifelong baker whose career includes a long stint with Publix, is the teacher. He spends five hours a day, five days a week, helping the students master the art of making pastries, from cookies and cakes to tarts and madeleines.

Diaz comes from a long line of bakers in Havana, his childhood memories including sweet moments when he would sneak a taste of cake frosting made by his father. He came to Miami 35 years ago, first learning to bake as a teenager. For 18 years, he worked at Publix, where he was a baker and managed and trained bakery employees.

To teach the students recipes, Diaz developed a color system using red, white, green and yellow labels that help the students memorize the measurements. Beyond visual learning, the key is repetition; a student typically makes a baked good about six times to master the recipe. Each student also has an individual learning plan that combines soft and technical skills.

I love baking. I love creating. I love teaching. I want to give these students an opportunity, understanding that they learn visually. I want to give them hope and light,” Diaz said. “We have students that if you put a book in front of them, they would panic. Some have a history of not doing well in school and they are afraid. You have to show them another way. But also, in every facet of their learning, you are also building their self esteem.”

“I get up early and I take two buses to get here. I love the program. It means a lot to me. Mr. Diaz taught me to bake chocolate cookies,” says Anthony Cazanove, 22. “I want to bake at a bakery and make stuff at home too.”

Several years ago, Diaz wrote a book on how to teach baking to people with learning disabilities. He showed it to Matusow, who at the time was running an adult disability program in the Miami-Dade School system.

It wasn’t the right fit at the time. Fast forward several years, and Matusow had just been given approval by the state of Florida to develop a post-secondary program for adults with disabilities. The baker with the cookbook immediately came to mind, the perfect teacher for a group that needed someone — with compassion and patience and a sensitive way — to train the students.

Next chapters

Diaz now uses his color system to teach skills from the state’s baking and pastry standard curriculum. Because the program is instructional, the baked goods cannot be sold. Instead, they are donated to the school system. Last week, the students made 200 vanilla cookies for a school board meeting.

Mr. Diaz has a God-given gift; there is no other way to explain his teaching,” Matusow said. “He has developed a system where he can take an industrial recipe that would be taught in a standard class and he can convert into the color system that so he can teach students how to bake an incredibly complicated or and sophisticated recipe.”

The program is supported with industry partnerships including Publix, Medina Baking & Powder Products, Panque Jamaica and Swiss Chalet — among the companies that may be able to place the students or help them find jobs. Nhora De La Pava, a celebrated cake designer, serves as guest instructor.

“I love my teacher. He is teaching us how to bake and how to work with different people,” says Sophia Cruz, 21. “I learned how to make a sponge cake!”

For Cruz, the class is the foundation of her next chapter.

Sophia has dyslexia. But here, she is learning and she looks forward to the program. I am so happy that she is in a program where she can get training for a vocation that will help her get a job,” said her father, Guillermo Cruz. “I want her to learn as much as she can. This is the beginning of her life.”


5 cups cake flour

1/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup vegetable oil or shortening

2 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla

1/2 cup chocolate chips

Combine first five ingredients in a stand mixer and mix on speed No. 2 for three minutes. Slowly add chocolate chips and mix on speed No. 1 for one more minute.

Spoon dough onto baking sheets and bake at 375 degrees for eight minutes.



Robin's picture
One hundred


Thank you for posting the article. It really captures the essence of the program and the students. I know CTE and adult ed often struggle to serve students with disabilities.Our team, including the adult education program who is the sponsor of the program, have worked really hard to provide adult vocational services that have real value for our students. I have seen some amazing life changing progress in our students that,  in k-12 or traditional post secondary would not have happened. There is an intersection between adult education 'culture' and post secondary career technical 'culture' that creates a positive learning environment for students with disabilities. Our students are supported by an industry  support group that has assisted us in everything from curriculum design to material donations to guest teaching. I hope we can continue to discuss the value of using adult education as a foundation for employment skills training for students with disabilities.   





RKenyon's picture
One hundred

Hello Robin,

Thanks for commenting about the baking program highlighted in this newspaper article,   What more can you tell us about this program?   Is there a job placement component that places students in bakery positions after completion of their classes?   What role do you have within this program?

I was especially interested in your statement, "I hope we can continue to discuss the value of using adult education as a foundation for employment skills training for students with disabilities."   Will you please expound on this statement?

Do any of our group members work with an employment skills training program?

Please share information about your programs.

Thank you,

Rochelle Kenyon, SME


Pamela's picture


Congratulations on your baking program being featured in the Miami-Herald.  The piece was truly inspiring. The skills Mr. Diaz is building in adult students, and his approach to achieved a finished baked product are a testament to him, his students and to you.  Are there any other such programs nationally? Or could this one be replicated?  Pamela Shrestha

Florida Department of Education

Division of Career and Adult Education



RKenyon's picture
One hundred

Hi Pamela,

How nice of you to comment on Miami-Dade County, Florida's special baking program.  It certainly sounds like a model program that could be replicated elsewhere -- if another incredibly experienced teacher could be found.

I see that you are from the Florida Department of Education's Division of Career and Adult Education.  Can you tell us about other model programs in your state for adult students with disabilities, please?


Rochelle Kenyon, SME