The aroma of breakfast permeates the Edison Café on a recent morning as special needs students learn how to make omelets, scrambled eggs and pancakes at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education HS in Jamaica, Queens.
But there's more on the menu than meets the eye. Two special education teachers, Jessica Forster and Nicole Bellomo, have expanded the café over the last four years. Students not only cook but do the shopping, print up and distribute the menu and even grow vegetables and spices that will go into pastas and salads. In the process, the students gain not just job skills, but communication and social skills, too.
It's a notable achievement in a school well known for its advanced CTE program and overall academic success, because Forster and Bellomo have created a program for students with an intellectual disability or multiple disabilities, a small but essential cohort within the school.
The school's Academics, Career and Essential Skills Program is a nondiploma program, but for the last three years Forster's students have been eligible to earn food handling certificates. The certificates, proof of their mastery of hygiene protocols required for kitchen work, are the same as those earned by workers at regular restaurants.
And while some of the special needs students may not get a traditional high school diploma, they get crucial life skills for the road ahead.
"Nicole and Jessica have worked so hard with their students," says Chapter Leader Vivian Nobile. "They've gotten them to interact with customers in real-life situations. The students are more outgoing, greeting us at the door of the café and thanking us for coming."
The café is located in the school's basement, next door to the cafeteria. Forster, the Academics, Career and Essential Skills Program instructor, explains that her students are not able to participate in the many other shop classes Edison is known for, but the cafe helps them "obtain vocational and verbal skills to help with whatever they pursue after high school."
Forster moves quickly around three work stations with double burners to make sure students are flipping the pancakes at the right time. Those who cannot stand at the burners are chopping vegetables or whipping eggs in bowls.
On the first floor, Bellomo's students, who are higher functioning and eligible for a traditional high school diploma, work behind the scenes in a kitchen complete with oven and stovetop. They're baking breakfast casseroles and blueberry coconut cheese cake bars that will be sold later in the week to teachers and other school staff. Café revenue helps purchase more food items for the café, including chips and soda.
Her students are also in charge of running the washer and dryer to keep their Edison Café uniforms looking spiffy.
"I'm passionate about cooking," says Bellomo, who has brought in her own favorite recipes for the students to try, including taco grilled cheese and her mother's specialty, a tortellini pasta salad.
"Our mission is to prepare our students for life outside of high school," she says. "We're constantly evaluating what we can do for our students to give them the skills they need when they graduate."
For instance, many of the students have a hard time initiating conversation, so that became a skill to include in the program. "We spend time on how you greet customers, and we like the students to describe the food to the customer — what's in it and what's nutritious about it," Bellomo said.
On Friday mornings, occupational therapist Jeryn Koshy and several of the students board a school bus to go shopping at the local supermarket. "They are learning to follow a shopping list and handle money," says Koshy.
But not everything is store bought: The school has a hydroponic garden on site, just down the hall from Bellomo's kitchen. Students tend the kale, lettuce, eggplant, basil and other greens that are used in the café sandwiches and salads. "I enjoy trimming back the basil for it to grow fuller," says Diosmery, one of Bellomo's students.
Finding a role for everyone at the café is a big part of its success. Paraprofessional Melody Rothstein has worked with Christopher for two years. He can't stand at the workstation, but he scrambles eggs at a café table.
"He used to be more closed off," she says. "Now he interacts with the other students because he's part of a team. He knows everyone's name and they make an effort to come to him," says Rothstein.
"The students come in believing they can do it, and they give it all they've got," says Noemi Gual, the school's paraprofessional representative. "There's so much learning in the café. It's become something they take pride in and responsibility for."