The aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies filled the air as Southmoreland high school’s learning support teachers stood clustered in the hallway anxiously awaiting the arrival of students from the primary center’s autistic support classroom. High school learning support students took their stations as the stirring of tiny footsteps formed outside the resource room.
“They’ll each bring four quarters and buy cookies and milk, and our kids will practice their transition skills while their students are practicing their own transition skills,” said Mrs. Jean Carey, high school learning support teacher.
The idea for the two classes to do a joint activity occurred after Mrs. Kelly Derr, primary center autistic support teacher, and Mrs. Carey were “randomly talking one day” about the high school’s coffee shop that was designed as a Transition to Work program. This type of training program stated by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry supports “any high school student with a disability who may need vocational guidance and assistance in preparing for, obtaining, or maintaining competitive employment.”
In the case of the coffee shop, targeted skills are social interaction, financial skills, and manners. But now these concepts are being broadened by touching younger students.
Each primary center student came up to a desk to place their order with a high school student in an event May 2. Mrs. Derr handed the student a plastic bag containing their money, and their math skills were exhibited by determining how many quarters were needed to pay for their order. They were also encouraged to practice their manners.
“Can you say ‘May I have a cookie?’” asked Mrs. Derr.
“May I have a chocolate chip cookie please?”
Sophomore Garrett Ansell handed the child the cookie of his choosing.
“Now what do you say?”
“You’re welcome,” said Ansell with a grin.
“It’s time to eat! Let’s go eat!”
As student after student placed their order, the high schoolers were able to see each student’s distinct differences. One student approached the desk with an iPad, and the high school students quickly flocked to the area. Mrs. Derr navigated through the folders on the screen. Things… Food… milk…
Brendan Eicher quickly spoke up.
“Excuse me,” he said. “What is that?”
“We call this her talker,” said Mrs. Derr. “She is nonverbal.”
“So that means she’s silent?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
Eicher describes the ability to speak through technology as “truly amazing.”
Other students used pictures to communicate their wants. A picture of all of their snack options were placed on Velcro strips on the front of a binder. The students were instructed to pick up the picture of the item they wanted and place it on a different Velcro strip at the bottom of the binder after a picture of the words “I want.” When the sentence was complete the sentence strip was either stated by the student or handed to the “cashier” depending on the student’s ability.
This was not only a learning experience for the younger students but also for the high school students as well. Ansell, who was manning the cookie station, had a particular connection with the kids. With each student that passed by with their milk and cookies, Ansell said “so cute….so cute.”
What the high school teachers and students didn’t know was that they would be in for a treat themselves. A primary center student stood up and handed Mrs. Marissa Hart a check.
“We wanted to make a donation to your coffee shop so you can continue to keep it growing,” said Mrs. Derr.
Once all of the kids had their food, the high school students interacted with the students as they ate in order to practice social skills. Conversations ranged from family members to pets to favorite school subject along with the exchange of hugs and high-fives.
“What they (the high school learning support students) don’t realize is that they were all once just like them,” said Mrs. Carey.
The coffee shop that most students only see as a place to get their fix of sugar or caffeine not only aids the students who keep the shop running for the time being, but it also affects their social and technical skills that will carry them for the rest of their lives. Just as high school students like Eicher and Ansell were once like the students they were serving cookies and milk, one day the primary students will take their place and continue to have an impact on younger students’ lives.
"Be a rainbow in someone else's cloud"- Maya Angelou
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