Highland News Leader

Here’s how Highland High is preparing special needs students for life after graduation

Highland High School’s coffee shop is teaching students life skills

A new coffee shop at Highland High School aims to teach students with difficulty learning real world skills before they graduate. The program puts students inside a cafe where they take and prepare orders, handle money and interact with customers.
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A new coffee shop at Highland High School aims to teach students with difficulty learning real world skills before they graduate. The program puts students inside a cafe where they take and prepare orders, handle money and interact with customers.

Early in the morning at Highland High School, while most students are still waking up, Jared Atwood and Laurence Fisher are busy, taking orders and brewing coffee for their classmates.

The pair gets to the school early, before the bell rings for 8 a.m. class to get Bulldog Grounds, the school’s new coffee shop, up and running and ready to serve a variety of flavors of coffee, tea and chocolate milk.

The cafe is a new program at Highland High School that gives students an extra boost in the morning and helps the school’s Special Transitional Experience Program (STEP) students prepare for life after graduation.

Winter break will mark one semester down for the coffee shop located in the high school’s common area. Every weekday, students work at the coffee shop throughout the day in the hope that the shop will give them the experience they’ll need before they graduate.

HHS special education teacher Gayla Stirewalt, who oversees the program said students who work at the coffee shop get a unique chance to take lessons they learn in the classroom and apply them to a real workforce experience.

STEP students typically are students with anxiety, characteristics of autism, learning disabilities or communication issues, Stirewalt said. She said the cafe offers those who have the most difficult a ground-level place to start learning about life after high school.

“My job is to try to transition them past high school so that they are able to work out in our communities, be productive citizens and give back,” Stirewalt said. “That’s what I want this to lead to.”

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Highland High School student Jared Atwood makes coffee in a Keurig for students at the school’s new coffee shop run by special transitional experience program (STEP) students. The students take and prepare orders, handle money and interact with customers at the shop. Kavahn Mansouri kmansouri@bnd.com

Students like Atwood and Fisher, who work the morning shift, are prime examples of how the coffee shop can make a difference for a student, Stirewalt said. Each morning the pair take orders from classmates and casually chat with other students, something she said wouldn’t be the case without the shop.

She said student interaction is just one of the lessons taught by working in the shop.

“We talk about how to address people, how to clean an area and job skills in general,” Stirewalt said. “Things, like staying on task, following a direction, being trustworthy and loyal, dealing with and counting money, are all covered. Things they don’t do on a typical daily basis in a classroom, they actually get to put to use.”

Students work in different shifts throughout the day, the morning rush being the busiest. Toward the end of the day, STEP students clean the shop, which serves as a detention classroom when the shop closes. If they perform well and follow the shop’s guidelines, they receive incentive pay for working at the store.

Different students are picked each month from Stirewalt’s two job skills courses. They then schedule blocks in which they’d prefer to work. She said it gives different students a chance to get the real-world experience from the shop.

Highland is the latest of many Madison County schools who have STEP coffee shops and cafes, Stirewalt said. She said last year she applied for a STEP grant to fund the coffee shop and the higher STEP levels. The grant currently funds the shop and all proceeds from the shop go back into the fund.

The class isn’t confined to just the coffee shop. Students at higher levels of the course get a chance to work at different locations around town. Three of Highland’s STEP students currently work at Highland Animal Hospital and two work at HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in town.

There are three levels of STEP work at the high school. The first step sees students working on basic skills like they do at the cafe. The second step focuses on volunteer work and teaches students more advanced skills, like filling out an application. The students who work at the animal hospital and HSHS are second STEP students.

The third STEP, Stirewalt said, sees students going out into the community and getting jobs with businesses.

As for the coffee shop, Stirewalt said she hopes it continues to grow. She said cafes around the state serve food and have a larger variety of beverages, something she hopes the cafe can achieve in the long run.

For now, though, she said she sees her students improving with every day they work at Bulldog Grounds.

“We’re just trying to build that first step for those students who need more support,” Stirewalt said.

Kavahn Mansouri: 618-239-2507, @KavahnMansouri