Mondays are for James R. Wood Elementary School. Wednesdays are for their own school, home to fifth- through eighth-grades, and the nearby high school. The prices are unbeatable: 50 cents for black coffee, $1 for coffee with mix-ins, 75 cents for a plain hot chocolate and $1 for hot chocolate with marshmallows.
Sometimes, these students who are all in the Life Skills program don their blue aprons to serve coffee to local veterans. Sometimes, it’s to the village’s firefighters.
On Wednesday, Dec. 6, the cart came to Gabel Hall 100 in the NIU College of Education.
“The coffee cart is a great way to teach the kids to be employable,” says Amanda Jungels, a Special Education major from Sugar Grove who spent her fall clinical placement at Somonauk Middle School. “It’s life skills with academics mixed in.”
Her analysis is spot-on, confirms Tim Ulrich, director of special education in Somonauk Community Unit School District 432, who calls the initiative “academics masked as a coffee cart.”
“We’re really focused on what our students are going to be able to do when they graduate, and we want to give them skills that will translate to the workplace,” Ulrich says. “We start them at an early age. The sooner we give these skills to kids, the more employable they’ll be.”
Jungels has been working with Somonauk Middle School special education teachers Kara Scott, an alumna of the NIU Department of Special and Early Education, and Jessica Plante. She will stay under their wings next semester during the first half of her student-teaching placement.
Bringing the coffee cart crew to NIU provided not only a stage to demonstrate “the different things they can do,” Jungels says, but also a good chance “to branch out and serve at a different place.”
“We’ve been talking about it for a while,” she says. “They seem really excited about college in general.”
NIU Presidential Teaching Professor Toni Van Laarhoven volunteered her classroom for the on-campus sale; she and her students became happy customers, as did Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and associate deans Bill Pitney and David Walker.
“Kara and Jessica made packets of information for our current Special Education majors that could assist them in developing a similar business in the future. They shared budgeting information and forms, gave a great presentation and shared a great video,” Van Laarhoven says.
“I love that Kara is an alum who was interested in giving back to NIU,” she adds, “and sharing wonderful strategies with our current and future special educators.”
Van Laarhoven also was impressed by the coffee cart initiative: “This is a great example of embedding all kinds of life skills in a functional activity.”
Café 432 workers rotate between four jobs – cart operator, greeter, barista and cashier – in which they interact with customers, take orders, measure and pour coffee, make change and clean up.
Job expectations are clearly defined. For example, the greeter will “smile and make eye contact with the customer, start with a form of greet statement, end with a departing statement and will keep a positive attitude.”
During their shifts, they develop independence while focusing on their math, language arts and social skills. Afterward, they discuss how each morning went.
“We started this at the beginning of the year,” Scott says. “We’re making a budget. We’re learning how to greet. We’re taking time to reflect on the different stages.”
Meanwhile, Ulrich says, the coffee crew has made many friends inside and outside the school walls. “Our students are members of the community,” he says. “Everyone knows our students.”
“These guys know more of the people in the district than any other of the kids,” Plante adds. “They know their names. They know their coffee orders.”
Justin Snider, principal of Somonauk Middle School and a double-alum of the NIU College of Education, is proud of the Café 432 students.
“I like to see them out and interacting with new people and new spaces,” Snider says. “It’s a way to enhance their skills. They practice those skills every day, but usually with students and teachers they’re already comfortable with.”
Laura Hedin, an associate professor of Special Education at NIU, calls the coffee cart “a tremendous opportunity” for the Somonauk students.
“Students with disabilities need to understand appropriate social communications, whether it’s just with people they meet out at the mall or in a job setting,” Hedin says. “We need to provide a context in which students can learn what is appropriate. They really need opportunities to go out with new people and to practice those skills.”
Visiting NIU could prove aspirational for the middle-schoolers.
“Everybody has to kind of see themselves in that setting and decide, ‘Is this something I want to have in my future? How do I get there?’ ” Hedin says.
“Some of these student may come to community colleges if appropriate for their own goals and ideas about what they want their future to be,” she adds. “There are also an increasing number of opportunities at four-year colleges as well – specialized programs so persons with disabilities can have undergraduate experiences. Those are expanding all over the country.”
Future teachers like Jungels, who Hedin believes is more than “just a buddy” to the middle-schoolers, can help to make those dreams come true.
“Amanda is an outstanding student, and she’s going to be a wonderful teacher. She already is a wonderful teacher. Kara Scott told us that it hasn’t been like having a clinical student; it’s like having a co-teacher who’s already licensed,” Hedin says.
“Amanda is very creative and a wonderful problem-solver with a heart for working with students with significant disabilities,” she adds. “She has this ability to make these really strong connections with her students but at the same time working toward the academic or social goals they need to be working on. She’s not setting the bar low.”