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The food service majors at Emerson Vocational High School are in the midst of their Christmas baking.

Over in McKinley High School, the green thumbs are seasonally turning red and white for the annual poinsettia and Christmas decorations sale that help the horticulture students keep their school-year plantings going.

So far, the bakers have produced 5,000 fig or anise cookies, 300 cakes and pies, and 100 decorated gingerbread people.

The goodies are in production within the school system at prices ranging from $1 for a gingerbread man to $20 for a fruit basket.

The 2,000 poinsettia plants are disappearing for $4 to $15, and wreaths at $12 to $20.

The two programs represent efforts by the city schools to provide hundreds of students with skills they can use to get jobs after graduation. Some of the students aren't waiting. Many have part-time jobs at florists and in restaurants.

Thomas Russo, 17, is one of the Emerson seniors working on orders for 40 cheesecakes.

"I always liked to cook at home," said Thomas, who claims a couple chefs on his father's side. Stephanie Billips, 17, who has been placing anise cutouts on cookie sheets, said she has already looked at enough frosted Christmas trees and reindeer. She is not going to do any additional baking at home.

The school takes orders in advance, mostly from people connected with the schools or parents of students, with pickups scheduled through Wednesday.

Regular work does not stop when the students start preparing for the annual baked goods sale. Sophomores prepare and freshmen serve the federally subsidized school lunches to the school's 500 students. Juniors do basic preparation for faculty lunches, while seniors do the final cooking and serving.

In a year, Emerson food majors serve 12,000 people who are not in the Emerson student body or faculty.

"We would only serve non-profit groups," said Salvatore Sedita, the school's principal. "Private people need not call."

And political groups also are out.

The Board of Education budget projection allows Emerson $124,000 to buy food, other than the estimated $37,000 in government-donated goods that make up part of the students' breakfast and lunch program.

This year's estimated revenues for Emerson show $14,000 coming back to the school from sales other than the federally reimbursed student meals.

Kristen Thomas, 16, a McKinley junior, wears a Santa hat as she sells the plants she helped nourish.

"I used to do gardening around the house in Lackawanna," she said. "I decided to learn about what I was doing."

Now Kristen is hoping for a college-backed career in horticulture.

Her classmate, Cheryl Kelsey, also 16, already has started. Cheryl found herself a part-time job in a North Buffalo flower shop.

Teacher Thomas Mitchell said all 18 juniors have part-time jobs with florists or garden stores and, if marks are all above 70, may work up to three days a week instead of attending classes. One senior, Sebastian Cavalieri, already has his own truck for landscaping and snow-plowing.

"We prepare them for work," said Mitchell. "Their preparation is equal to a Regents diploma, and some get two diplomas."

Emerson's Sedita said the school charges the cost of materials and teachers' overtime for any catered brunches or parties.

The money from catering and baking sales is returned to the school system as far as it reflects the cost of food, but profits go to the student activities fund, Sedita said.

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