A cut above
Cosmetology is fun, but it’s not all play
Gabrielle Santucci has her nails done by fellow sophomore Svetlana Vdovichenko
Erica Galipault has her eyes done by Paola Rodriguez
Mannequins at FCTS
Madison Lively does Madison Dussault's hair at the FCTS
Amelia Kendrick gets her cut and dry critiqued by instrutor Lynn Wiles.
Instructor Bessie Coutu works with Amelia Kendrick
Gabrielle Santucci has her nails done by fellow sophomore Svetlana Vdovichenko
Sarah Koshinsky gets her eyes done by Amelia Kendrick
Bessie Coutu cosmetology instructor at FCTS
Resting on top of a high row of cabinets was a row of mannequin heads. Some had long, flowing hair, with the occasional red highlight. Others had short buzz cuts and one went even further, looking clown-like with a white-painted face, red nose and green and blue hair.
The mannequins were looking over a large classroom of about 20 female students — sophomores and juniors enrolled in Franklin County Technical School’s cosmetology program — who on a Thursday morning were working on various tasks throughout the room to the soundtrack of laughter and pop music.
The front of the room resembled a professional barber shop or beauty salon. The shop’s prices hang from the wall, there is a cash register and welcome desk. And there’s several stations for clients to sit in while students cut or styled their hair with the help of large mirrors.
Juniors and seniors work with actual clients — usually about three or four community regulars and several students and faculty members each week — under the watchful eyes of instructors Lynn Wiles and Bessie Coutu. There were no clients on this day, but students kept busy, taking turns as cosmetologist and client, trying different techniques on one another.
Near the back of the room, sophomores were busy, too. Some sat across from one another at small kidney-shaped tables, giving each other manicures. Others worked on mannequins in front of large, mirrored walls, styling the hair of their silent, body-less clients.
Arielle Diemend, a sophomore from Hatfield, looked into a mirror while she curled her mannequin’s brown hair in different directions — a strategy used to increase volume.
“I’ve been cutting hair since I was 3 years old,” she said. “When I was little, I used to cut my hair and make my mom really aggravated.”
Diemend was in sixth grade when she realized she wanted to go to Tech. The program allows students a chance to get a head start, with many earning their state-issued cosmetology license sometime during their senior year.
Her friends, both from Montague, worked nearby: Julia Carey looked into a mirror while she straightened Skyler Clark-Williams’ hair. The program has brought the three sophomores together. Often, self-education continues after the final bell rings, when they’ll visit each other at home to color or style hair.
Near the front of the room, junior Paola Rodriguez gave her classmate Erica Galipault, of Greenfield, a basic manicure. Rodriguez comes from a line of Puerto Rican cosmetologists and enjoys the creativity the field allows.
“There’s different ways you can do hair styles. That’s why I like cosmetology,” she said. “It’s fun. It’s something you express yourself with.”
Working toward a license
Students get to practice on one another and get their own fresh hair styles and manicures in the process.
But it’s far from all play. At the heart of the program is a four-year trek to earn a cosmetology license.
Students spend every other week in the cosmetology shop, logging 30 hours of both theoretical classroom studies — where they learn things like safety, sanitation, cosmetology history as well as the latest techniques — and practical experience on mannequins or people.
Each hour they log after their 16th birthday is meticulously recorded by their instructors. It’s a number that is ingrained in their brains because it dictates what they are allowed to do and when.
A student can’t cut someone’s hair until about 300 hours. They can’t work with chemicals until they log another couple hundred.
And, by the end of their education, they must reach a minimum amount of hours on specific cosmetology tasks (75 hours on straight hair cutting, 150 hours on tinting and bleaching, 75 hours on facials and eyebrow treatments).
It all leads up to the ultimate goal: 1,000 hours. Only after hitting that magic number can the students take a state-proctored exam to earn their cosmetology license.
The exam is an all-morning affair that involves a 15-task practical exam on an actual person, while evaluators watch for proper technique, personal hygiene and safety.
It’s followed immediately by multiple choice questions that test the student’s practical knowledge. (Sample question: For a comfortable sitting posture, keep the soles of the feet: a) on the floor, b) crossed, c) extended or d) elevated.)
If they pass both of the tests — and in the past two years, 14 out of 16 Tech students have accomplished this — they receive their license that day. They could be hired by a salon that afternoon.
Wiles, who has run a Florence salon for 31 years and is in her fifth year teaching at Tech, said she can recognize good work in the business. Her students are trained to do good work.
“This is professional level,” she said. “We actually have five students within the last two years that are working in local hair salons behind the chair.”
Coutu, a Fitchburg native who graduated from Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School’s cosmetology program in 2000, joined Wiles three years ago. Together, the two have been working to give their students more exposure: through community events and outreach, field trips to malls and businesses and job shadow days at local salons.
Going through the program
The program currently enrolls 33 students, including two males. Thirteen freshmen were accepted into the program, the largest in recent history, instructors said.
After an exploratory semester, freshmen begin their work at the end of January. Wiles gives students a safety quiz and begins teaching them basic theory. Students read chapters from a textbook (the topic on this week was “Bacteriology”) and complete homework assignments, leading up to a test each Friday.
Coutu teaches sophomores the fundamentals of their practical assignments. With mannequins in hand, they’ll learn together how to cut hair — going one step at a time, as a group, while Coutu walks around and inspects progress. They’ll learn the basics of things like manicures, facials and braiding, and begin logging hours by working on their classmates or the mannequin heads.
By their junior years, Wiles challenges them with daily practical assignments — a certain type of haircut, a certain style or braiding pattern. With clipboard in hand, she’ll walk around the working stations, writing down what each student is working on to add to their hourly totals.
And this is the year where students perform their first haircuts on actual people, which, for some, can be pretty terrifying.
“I won’t leave their side,” said Wiles. “We’ve had a few students, they’re so scared that they refuse ... I’ll kind of give them one “Get Out of Jail Free” card.”
The school’s “privilege pass” program — where students can get out of their academic classes and pay $5 for a haircut — puts more pressure on the cosmetology students.
“Now they’re doing it on peers. (If) something goes wrong, by the time they get to lunch, the whole school knows about it,” Wiles said.
But the instructors have said that the haircuts generally go well, albeit longer than normal ones. The shop has a loyal clientele who come regularly and have referred the school to others, they said.
Seniors continue their practical assignments but also work on building their resume and preparing to enter the workforce.
Once students get their licenses, they have the option to go on “co-op” and get paid to work at salons during their shop week. No seniors are currently doing this, said Coutu, but it’s something the school will be working on with local salons in the coming months.
One senior is already licensed and three more may be next month.
Schedule an appointment
Community members can schedule appointments for weekday mornings by calling 413-863-9561. Clients sign a waiver form saying they understand the possible risks that come from the student-administered service.
Prices vary: $8 minimum for clipper cut, $9 for a haircut, $10 for reconditioning with shampoo, $12 for a facial, $7 for a manicure and $20 for a pedicure.
A full price list is available on the Tech school’s website: www.fcts.org.
Staff reporter Chris Shores started at The Recorder in 2012. He covers education and health and human services. He can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264. His website is www.chrisshores.com.
Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.