Running The Show

As a special education teacher in the industry program at Kennedy Krieger High School, I have an opportunity to see our students in a different light than many of my fellow teachers. While they help the kids tackle academic skills and life skills, I teach work readiness skills in Café James—a unique environment where we arm students with critical job skills for careers in the hospitality and food service industry.

This marks my third year teaching in Café James. It’s a huge reward to watch my students become more and more independent in their work. One class, in particular, impresses me daily because I’m especially proud of their progress in the face of the obstacles their diagnoses present. If you walk into the café during this period, you’ll find me grinning with joy at my students who are “running the show” with minimal support. This group of students is what we call an Academy 3 class. Students in this Academy present the most significant need for special education or related services support in a classroom setting, with a disorder or disability which has a significant impact on academic or cognitive function.

Each student has a specific role in Café James, which complements their abilities and offers them opportunities to overcome their personal challenges. The students must each excel in their roles to successfully run the café for an entire class period. Let me take you through a typical day in Café James during fifth period.

When the bell rings at 11:20 a.m., my class of five begins to roll in and quickly prepare for work. They grab their hats and aprons, clock-in, wash their hands, put on gloves, and begin their jobs.

When a customer first enters Café James, they are welcomed by Kimberly, our greeter and runner. She answers customer questions (perhaps not accurately at all times, but with complete enthusiasm, and that’s what makes it fun!). When she brings the order slips back to the cooks, Kimberly often reminds the entire class, including her supervisors, “We must work hard, the customers are waiting.” Keeping the customers happy is her number one motivation, certainly a critical skill to have in the hospitality industry!

Kimberly has a diagnosis of intellectual disability,  and it can be upsetting to her when strangers talk to her teachers, therapists or program aide. I worried that this could be challenging for her in the café, where there are many impromptu conversations among staff and students during the course of “business”. I thought that we would ease Kimberly into the new environment, allow her to first help with the cleaning of the café as she observed her peers working with customers.

On only the second day of work, her music therapist came into the café to buy lunch, and Kimberly wanted to know why she was there. I could see that Kimberly was trying to process seeing her music therapist in an environment outside of the classroom. I explained to Kimberly that school staff members often come to the café when they’re hungry, and we serve them lunch. Almost immediately, Kimberly expressed interest in working with customers. Knowing that she was confident enough to ask for this type of work, I had to give her a chance, eager to see her defy expectations. Within a matter of days, Kimberly was interacting with customers, talking to everyone and not at all concerned by the unfamiliar faces.  We quickly realized that not only did Kimberly easily transition into this new environment, but working at the café was therapeutic for her. Even when she is having a rough day, Kimberly comes to work with a smile on her face, prepared to help her customers.

Kimberly hands off order slips to our student cook, who has been in the hospitality industry track for three years now. Though his reading ability is very limited, he has learned to recognize the words on the menu so that he can read the orders. With few words, he quickly gets to work and independently makes a BLT, grilled cheese, chicken sandwich, or fish sandwich. When he first started with us, he needed regular prompting to stay focused and constant supervision to complete his tasks. Now, he moves around the kitchen and works with ease. This summer, I’ve often given him a direction only to have him point to what I’m talking about to tell me that he’s already a few steps ahead. I always say to him, in a joking manner, “Alright, I get it, you don’t need me at all!” And he just grins.

After customers receive their food, they’re off to see Aaron, our amazing cashier. He is always the first to arrive to class, and always with pep in his step, a cheerful hello, and a fist pound. With a smile, Aaron greets each customer and asks what they have ordered and swiftly navigates the Micros computer touch screen to calculate their total. He can complete the cash, check and credit card transactions with very minimal staff support.

Although Aaron has an autism spectrum disorder, he has reading, math, money and social skills that made him a natural choice for the cashier position. It was still, however, expected that he would need staff support to navigate the digital cash register and complete money transactions. Aaron quickly taught me not to underestimate his abilities. Although he needed help with the first few transactions, he mastered the skills required, and a program aide now needs only to watch over his shoulder as he independently runs the register.

There are other students performing equally important jobs during this class period. We have a student who helps Kimberly greet customers with the use of his DynaVox, a digital speech device that enables him to communicate. When the lunchtime rush slows, he doesn’t let his wheelchair keep him from helping to clean tables and restock the drink inventory. Another student helps the cook prepare food and wash dishes to keep things running smoothly.

Each student has an important job and they know that it takes a team effort to run Café James. I am always touched by how supportive they are of one another and encouraging if someone is having a bad day.

Despite that each of these students has a disability, they are filled with plenty of abilities. I feel so lucky that I get to figure out how each student’s talents can play a role in our café and come together to create what I often tell them is a “well-oiled machine”. It’s not always easy to carry out the tasks involved in running a café for an individual with a disability, but this wonderful group makes it look effortless. It’s incredibly rewarding to watch them in action, and they keep our customers coming back for more. Truly, can you imagine a better job?

Lindsay Balladarsch is a special education teacher at Kennedy Krieger High School and also Certified Food Service Manager of Café James, part of the high school’s Industry program.

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