Feature stories

School cafe offers ‘real-world experience’

Students and staff celebrate the grand opening of the student-run Riverview Cafe Miller Photography

Students and staff celebrate the grand opening of the student-run Riverview Cafe with Principal Annette Beale (third from left) and Chapter Leader Pascual Lleras (fourth from left).

A student keeps the cash register ringing as safety officer Danasia Davis, schoo Miller Photography

A student keeps the cash register ringing as safety officer Danasia Davis, school-based coach Margot Owen and teacher Chip Healy make their lunchtime purchases.

The Riverview Cafe is open for business.

Moments after the formal ribbon-cutting ceremony on Feb. 13 that officially opened the door, the cash register began ringing as high school students at the Riverview School who are running the cafe began serving a line of lunchtime customers. While the cafe is open daily for staff and students in the three District 75 schools co-located in the Long Island City building, it has a more important mission.

“In this simulated workplace, students are experiencing a real-life work environment and learning to deal with curve balls they don’t get in the classroom,” said Chapter Leader Pascual Lleras, who spearheaded the project.

The students, who have multiple disabilities, run the cafe from the ground up. They prepare shopping lists, buy, display, market, sell and, at the end of the day, inventory their merchandise — which includes soup, coffee, snacks, fruit and water.

They are also improving their social skills and learning how to deal with difficult customers, having role-played scenarios in the classroom before becoming retailers.

Jill Guzzardo, a special education teacher and a school-based coach, said a parent who couldn’t take her son into stores because he lacked the social skills to behave no longer has that problem as the boy focuses on what it takes to be part of the business.

Students with a more artistic bent are creating swag-bag gift items and cards appropriate to the season for the cafe inventory. Teacher Kelli Ferrara worked with her class of five students on the “step-by-step procedure” of artfully crafting and packaging a variety of Valentine’s Day gifts.

Real-world issues of competition and taxes have also been part of the learning curve. At the Riverview Cafe, you can buy an ice-cold Snapple for one dollar, while a nearby merchant charges $2.50. And students are now over their surprise at having to add tax to the purchases on their first shopping trip.

The cafe is designed to meet the needs of students like Stefan, who was turned away when he interviewed for a job at CVS because he lacked experience.

“This real-world experience provides our students with skills they can take out into the community to become independent and successful,” said Margot Owen, a special education teacher and school-based coach.

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