Deep within a labyrinth of offices at Wright Junior High School, eighth-grader Mikayla Needlman gently knocks on Lincolnshire-Prairie View School District 103 Superintendent Scott Warren’s door.
Warren quickly opens up and smiles at his young visitor. Mikayla is one of the students in the Lincolnshire school’s special-education program who help operate a mobile cart loaded with chips, candy bars and other tasty treats — and Warren is feeling peckish.
“Do you still have the popcorn?” he asks.
Mikayla and sixth-grader Shania Clement spin the cart until they find the requested snack in a color-coded bin. They hand the bag to Warren, collect a dollar, give 50 cents change and go in search of another customer.
Learning-behavior specialist Anna Healy walks along with the girls, assisting when needed. She and social worker Alex Funk started the cart operation this year to teach students basic employment skills like customer service and making change.
But the program’s done more than that.
“It builds a sense of community,” Healy said. “Students love to interact with teachers, and teachers love to get to know students they don’t typically work with on a daily basis.”
Wright is among several suburban schools with programs designed to give students with disabilities retail experience without leaving campus. Elsewhere in Lake County, Libertyville High School and Grayslake North High both have coffee bars run by such teens.
Advocates for people with disabilities enthusiastically support the efforts. Work experience is an important predictor of employment success for students with disabilities, said David Kearon, the director of adult services for the group Autism Speaks.
“This is an excellent first step for these students to gain vocational experience in a safe environment,” Kearon said.
Kids are motivated
Wright Junior High’s mobile snack operation is active Mondays and Thursdays. The students usually work one or two at a time, accompanied by Healy, Funk and sometimes personal aides.
The students push the rolling cart from office to office, asking administrators, teachers and other staffers if they want treats. Some students struggle to communicate verbally, so they present a specially created menu that holds removable photos of snack items. When a customer chooses an item, the students look for it on the cart.
Healy and Funk keep the kids on task and make sure they collect money and return change.
The students enjoy the work. Self-directed comments like “good job” and thumbs-up signs are not uncommon after transactions.
“The most amazing part is how excited the students get, and how motivated they are to interact with people,” Healy said.
The adults who work at Wright are excited about the program, too.
“By providing this fun and interactive service, our students utilize their communication, math, reading, problem solving and organizational skills,” Warren said.
‘A great success’
At Libertyville High, special-needs students in a vocational cooperative education program team with general-education students every morning to run the Wildcat Warehouse — a stand offering coffee, tea, oatmeal and more for students and staffers in need of pick-me-ups.
It operates in the building’s main foyer but also is active elsewhere for special events such as staff training days.
Special education teacher Alice Leafblad said the effort has been “a great success” since launching in October.
“Learning how to get a job, but also how to keep a job, has been our primary focus,” she said. “The Wildcat Warehouse is a place for students to develop those skills in a structured setting.”
Grayslake North High has a similar operation — the Knights Cafe.
Originally launched as a mobile coffee cart in 2014, the business evolved into a fixed facility within the cafeteria that’s open for a few hours each day.
“We decided that it would be more authentic to replicate a real coffee shop,” special-education teacher Kelly Benton said. “Our administration was extremely supportive.”
All the students who run the Knights Cafe have disabilities. Supervised by special-education staffers, they learn customer service techniques, inventory control methods and other valuable skills, including how to make the beverages that are for sale.
“Our students make and sell hot coffee, hot tea, hot chocolate, iced coffee, iced tea and pink lemonade,” Benton said. “We are always open to new drink suggestions and often have monthly specials.”
Maria Paiewonsky, a program manager and transition specialist with the Boston-based Institute for Community Inclusion, said students benefit from opportunities that promote college and career readiness skills such as teamwork, critical thinking and leadership.
Inclusive work experiences can help students with disabilities naturally develop into “independent, self-confident workforce contributors,” Paiewonsky said.
Autism Speaks’ Kearon lauded the Lake County efforts, too — especially because some participants have autism spectrum disorders.
“Programs like this are very important,” he said. “Research shows that young people with autism have more successful employment outcomes after high school if they have had hands-on, work-based learning experiences as students.”
Such activities are more common at high schools than at junior high or middle schools, Kearon said. He hopes that changes.
“The earlier we can expose students with autism or other disabilities to these sorts of experiences, the better,” he said.