Decked out in chef coats and a little awed in their surroundings, Harley Coplin and Lizzie Hearn helped make the spinach-almond-cream stuffing for Butternut Squash Eggrolls.

A pair of seventh-graders — both with dreams of becoming professional chefs — got their first big chance Thursday over the hot stoves of Tease Restaurant as a reward for meeting an academic goal.

Decked out in chef coats and a little awed in their surroundings, Harley Coplin and Lizzie Hearn helped make the spinach-almond-cream stuffing for Butternut Squash Eggrolls, which were to be served up to regular customers that evening.

The pair earned the honor by being "Zero Heroes," meaning they finished all their homework at Ashland Middle School's Academic Support Center.

"I'm psyched," said Coplin. "This is one of my dreams. I love cooking, especially making cakes. That's what I want to be, a pastry chef."

"It's a very new experience, so interesting," said Hearn. "It gives me a better experience of what it'll be like when I'm older and can be a chef."

Tease chef and owner Marc Rosewood pronounced their work top notch.

"They followed the recipe and it came out exactly as it should," he said. "Cooking has to come from within, so I encourage them to make mistakes and learn what's right and wrong. A chef is someone who has a passion for cooking and loves to play."

The students are among 50 middle schoolers who "may be struggling to complete assignments" and are getting tutoring from educational assistants, says Karen Hobbs, coordinator of the Academic Support Center.

Real world work experiences are rewards for those who become Zero Heroes by completing all assignments for the year to date, she says.

Noting that most teachers are "working their sox off" with large student loads and stiff budget cuts, Hobbs says she and other tutors operate "homework clubs" before school starts, at lunch hour and after school, helping many kids with math or literacy challenges, as well as those who struggle finishing their homework.

"Going out on jobs like this is a great honor for the kids," said Hobbs, noting one girl will get a taste of work with a graphic designer, while another won a full take-out Chinese lunch from Yuan Yuan restaurant.

"It encourages kids to have the passion to experience a dream," said Tease owner Julie O'Dwyer. "It's really important as a small business owner to do this, especially in a small town where we can all be creative and give back to the community and help young kids who've done well."

The Academic Support Center provides five computers and a quiet place for kids to work — neither of which may be available at home, said Hobbs, and it welcomes parents to come in for tutoring on the new math, so they can help their children.

AMS teachers all provide tutoring after school, but are thankful they can send kids onto the ASC, she adds. In a program called Math Mate, eighth-graders also tutor sixth-graders in that often difficult subject.

Hearn and Coplin worked as assistant chefs for 90 minutes, also helping cook leftovers into a staff meal of pasta and ground beef, which was served for all employees at 4 p.m.

Any businesses willing to provide on-site experiences for middle schoolers who meet their goals are asked to call Hobbs at 541-482-1611, extension 166.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.