Lincoln special education students run school’s coffee shop

Story image for Education from Omaha World-Herald

Down a hallway lined with Lincoln High School’s signature red lockers, through the doors of Room 123, teachers can find a little early-morning salvation: a caffeine oasis open for business each Friday morning.

More likely than not, Quar-tus Jones will be there, the high school junior with his black apron on, ready to serve the steady stream of customers coming through the doors for a cup of Joe.

Often, it’s actually Joe coming through the doors, and Quar-tus and classmates who make this joint run know exactly how Mr. Pahr likes his coffee.

You like your coffee black, the students will say.

Yes black, he’ll reply. Nothing in it.

And the fact that Mr. Pahr, who teaches in the International Baccalaureate program at the other end of the building, knows many of these students by name, that they exchange pleasantries in the hallway, says much about what’s happening in Room 123.

What’s happening, for two periods each Friday morning, is Common Grounds, a coffee shop for Lincoln High staff run by students learning job skills.

Quar-tus, who’s interested in basketball and loves Michael Jackson and the R&B group New Edition, also loves selling coffee.

“It is pretty fun,” he said.

His counselor, Becky Tegeler, asked him last year if he’d be interested because she’d come up with an idea and was determined to make it happen.

The counselor, who works with special education students, wanted to broaden the job-skills experience students with intellectual and developmental disabilities got at Lincoln High, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

Existing classes teach the skills well, Tegeler said, but they nearly always involve the same group of kids and the same teachers.

“I wanted to expand their circle so more people know them, and they could work with people they’re not familiar with,” Tegeler said.

Her inspiration was a story she’d read about a couple in North Carolina who opened a coffee shop run by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

She called Tamara and Dan Sloan, who own Lincoln’s longtime business The Mill, which recently opened a store near the school.

Tegeler asked if maybe they’d be willing to donate some Keurig cups.

Tamara Sloan had other ideas.

She’d reached out to Lincoln High before they opened the newest store, and wanted to be a good neighbor. They’ve contributed to sporting events and gotten to know the students and teachers who stop by for coffee — and they were all in.

“The Mill’s willingness to participate is huge,” Tegeler said.

Beginning last semester, they donated coffee — the freshly brewed stuff — and Common Grounds began as a coffee cart.

Tegeler and vocational job skills teacher CJ Brison set up a system on Google Classroom so teachers could put in orders for coffee and students delivered the coffee to their classrooms.

Teachers loved it — and it got so busy they started asking if they could just stop by for a cup.

So this semester, they can — and they do, a constant stream of teachers and administrators and the school resource officer coming into the room with the Common Grounds sign, red and white polka dot tablecloths and two flavors of coffee in 85-cup containers. They’ve recently added hot chocolate and tea.

The coffee shop is part of a class, which means the rest of the week students spend time practicing the skills they’ll put into practice on Friday: greeting their customers, asking what they’d like, pouring the coffee, measuring the coca and the water, taking money, making change, saying thank you.

Teachers can still order online and have their coffee delivered, and sometimes they call in an order.

Senior Karen Ballardo sold coffee last year and is back this year to help her fellow students, walking with them to deliver orders, reminding them to greet their customers, to say thank you.

Brison and Tegeler tailor the class to standards the district requires they teach, but it’s all about the coffee shop.

“We’ve always had vocational job opportunities but we created the class specifically for this,” Brison said, and learning social skills is a big part of the experience.

“Having a face-to-face conversation, talking to students and staff is a good experience for them.”

The class teaches the importance of good hygiene in a job setting, how you might not always get to do the job you want — which is why all the students take a turn at each task required to run a coffee shop.

The $1 they charge for coffee goes back into the class for supplies — the tablecloths, carts, drink carriers and aprons.

Tegeler said they’ve been intentionally buying aprons that are easy to put on to minimize sensory sensitivities some students have, and making sure there are pockets in front for the money.

Brison and Tegeler are there each Friday, along with at least four para-educators to support the students — and often Tegeler’s recently retired dad, who volunteers.

Each Thursday, Quar-tus calls The Mill to find out what coffee flavors they’ll have that week. The students take inventory, practice saying the names, print out the online orders and set up an assembly line with room number cards marking each order. The regulars have their room number laminated.

Last year at the end of school, the students made a banner and went to The Mill to say thanks. They had lots of questions and the folks at The Mill had T-shirts for them.

Sloan is working with Tegeler and Brison to expand the program so that some students can get their food handler permits and volunteer at The Mill near their school.

“Now we can expand our circle to the community,” Tegeler said.

They’ve got lots of ideas and dreams: making the coffee shop an all-day affair, expanding to serve students, maybe adding food.

Many of the students who take the class will go on to the district’s VOICE program, a job training program for students 18 to 21 years old.

But unemployment rates are high for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Tegeler said, and helping students with skills that could help them get meaningful work after graduation is important. Too often they end up doing menial tasks for little money, she said.

Quar-tus, for his part, likes his job in Room 123 and it’s taught him a lot, including a couple of really good things.

Serving the coffee is one, but just as important is the second thing.