Every Wednesday morning, the rich smell of a coffee shop diffuses through the halls of Minnetonka High School, most strongly emanating from room 1422. Inside is a small business, run entirely by Minnetonka students with the help of teachers and support staff specially trained to assist students with developmental and cognitive disabilities (DCD). For only one dollar, MHS teachers and students can buy coffee and tea to enjoy in the morning, and the busy shop workers get practice filling orders, handling money and socializing with staff and peers.
"We are moving away from the traditional program-based room, and getting our kids involved in function-based skills: what they need to know to be productive, successful members of society," explains Taylor Moon, one of the high school's DCD teachers. Mr. Moon recently began working in Minnetonka's Special Education program, and has since been working with other teachers and departments to get his students more involved with the rest of the school. "We're really trying to determine what's most important for our kids, and give them new opportunities. I think this is a really big first step for us in getting our kids involved in the community," he says.
The Coffee Cart project consists of both a stationary coffee bar in room 1422 and a portable delivery cart. Earlier this year, students worked with Mr. Boswell, a physics teacher, and Mr. Eby from the Technology Education department to design and build an insert for the cart, specially tailored for its unique use.
"Mr. Boswell and Mr. Eby helped us drill the plywood top for the cart," said Special Education teacher Katie Gustafson. "They let our kids use the drill press. Then, during science class, the students all hammered the nails and practiced their fine motor skills. Now they can see that something they actually built is being used every week."
Beginning at 7:45 a.m., Chloe--who runs the coffee bar in 1422--fills the drink orders while a rotating group of students takes on the job of loading the cart with coffee, tea, and spare change and delivering drinks to staff members around the building. Back in room 1422, Chloe manages the coffee bar for those who may have forgotten to order in advance, but still want a hot drink to start their day. Other students are assigned to take an inventory of the supplies, and report back to Mr. Moon with a list of items they need to restock.
By providing a simple, yet positive connection between students in Special Education and others throughout the building, the program helps build inclusion and gives students a chance to meet new people they may not typically see on a regular basis. Later, when students are walking down the hallway, they recognize and greet those who have purchased coffee. Chloe says she enjoys her job as a barista because it makes the school feel like a more friendly place.
Principal Jeff Erickson is pleased with the inter-departmental, educational programming serving this unique group of students. "One of our building goals at MHS is fostering connectedness and inclusion," he said. "The success of this project shows how important it is for students to feel valued and part of the larger school community."
Jack, one of the students who helps manage the coffee cart, adds, "I enjoy pushing the cart and delivering the coffee. It has taught me to be kind to others."
Naturally, a portion of the money earned from the coffee project is used to replenish supplies to support the business. The remaining profits are donated to the "Spread the Word to End the Word" campaign, an organization run by Special Olympics aimed at educating the public about intellectual and cognitive disabilities and ending the use of the "R"-word in the United States.
The coffee program has been a huge success so far, so much so that the department is working on a second cart to expand their business--one for each floor of the school!
"Often times, Special Ed programs are really hidden away, and we really want to bring ourselves to light," concludes Mr. Moon. "We want our kids to think, 'yeah we have disabilities, but we can showcase our abilities, too.' It's a fairly simple process, but for these kids it's awesome."