PSEA Learning Lessons visits the Gator Café

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PSEA Learning Lessons visits the Gator Café

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

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.

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.