Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools

Voice: September 2015

This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,’’ that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools. Find Learning Lessons videos and other stories at www.psea.org/learninglessons.

At the Gator Café, special education students fill coffee orders, make change, and socialize with their peers.

The pre-vocational program at Gateway High School, Allegheny County, provides students with special needs an outlet to socialize and gain work experience for the future.

“Prior to the Gator Café, special education students worked in a number of different environments throughout the week outside of the school building,” said Megan Petruska, chair of the high school’s special education department.

The experience was inconsistent.

Gateway teachers witnessed successful programs being run in surrounding school districts and wanted to implement something similar for their students.

Beginning in November 2014, the Gator Café created an opportunity for teachers to provide an authentic work environment with a daily job, while allowing students to work among and socialize with their peers at Gateway High School. 

“The Gator Café teaches our students life skills and vocational skills, as well as social skills, and it gives them the opportunity to interact with their peers who don’t have special needs,” said Kara Samsa, autistic support/life skills teacher.

Gator Cafe - Voice September 2015

Skills for the future
The Gator Café mirrors a real-world environment.

“Students in our program are employees of the Gator Café,” said Andrew Estok, learning support teacher. “Each day they play a part in opening the café in the morning, preparing and cleaning the coffee and cappuccino machines, stocking the café materials, taking inventory of needed materials, taking orders, making change for customers, filling orders, counting the cash drawer, and closing the café at the end of the morning.”

The café sells a variety of items, including hot drinks and flavored waters. Students write their orders on color-coded order forms to help café workers identify products. For example, a purple slip is for hot chocolate orders.

 “One of the most beneficial parts of the program is that students have the opportunity to develop pre-vocational skills that will support them in future endeavors,” Samsa said. “For example, students are able to apply math skills in a real-world setting as they count money, work with change, and balance the register each shift.”

Students also gain experience being punctual for their shifts, working as a team, and taking directives from a supervisor.

“They learn how to engage in appropriate peer interactions not only with their co-workers, but also with the customers who visit the coffee shop,” said teacher Jessica Seward. “These real-world experiences will help prepare students for post-secondary job training.”

A positive experience all around
“The Gator Café has received an abundance of positive feedback from students, workers, and faculty,” Petruska said.

One of the reasons for that is it is a treat for students and faculty to be able to purchase drinks throughout the day.

Learning Lessons Tip Sheet - Sept 2015

“Some teachers have used trips to the coffee shop as part of positive reinforcement systems to encourage good behavior and hard work in their classrooms,” said teacher Brooke Ruby.

Working in the café also has some added benefits, like boosting student self-esteem and self-worth.

“The workers relish the opportunity to interact with peers. They feel like they are brightening up their peers’ day by serving them beverages,” Seward said. “As a result, working in the café gives them a sense of purpose above and beyond the academic part of their day.”

Benefits outweigh challenges
“The benefits of having a program like the Gator Café far outweigh the challenges that we experienced developing the program, though challenges do exist,” Petruska said.

Finding a location for the café was the first challenge.

“We currently share a small space with our librarian,” Samsa said. “With the coffee shop in the library, it is difficult for the coffee shop staff to teach and to work with the students while remaining quiet.”

The challenge does provide an opportunity for teaching and practicing social interactions in a quiet study environment, though another location dedicated exclusively to the café would be ideal, Petruska added.

Safety in the café is another issue that has been addressed.

Students do not use high pressure equipment, but rather mix drinks from prepackaged products and dispense them from machines. However, with hot water being used and steaming beverages being served, educators are diligently teaching safe practices. 

A worthy project
As the Gator Café enters its second year, it does so on a firm foundation, thanks to a lot of hard work.

“The teachers have worked extremely hard to set up and run the coffee shop,” Petruska said. “Countless hours have been dedicated to the development of a program that meets the needs of the student workers so they have an authentic work experience while in school.

“When we started we were unsure of the benefits that would come. The planning was challenging. But it really came full circle,” she said. “Kids are talking with one another, they’re having fun, they want to come to school, they get to interact with their peers who they may not speak to … in addition to all of the skills that they learn. 

“Overall, it has given our students a real-world experience that otherwise they may have not received in the school setting.’’

For school districts looking to implement something similar, teachers from Gateway EA provide some advice.








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