Students in a special program at St. Charles (Ill.) East High School are exposed to a commercial kitchen, the school cafeteria. Each day, a team of two or three people join the catering team for one or two school terms to help with preparation, learning both life skills and potential job skills.
Achieving Independence Through Support and Education, or RISE, provides one-on-one instruction and support for students in Community Unit 303 School District with intellectual or multiple disabilities. The program combines academics, communication, and self-advocacy to promote ultimate student independence.
Part of each day is devoted to academics – reading, writing and math, says RISE teacher Christina Colclasure. Students also learn life skills such as grocery shopping and participate in workplace learning experiences.
In the cafeteria kitchen, students learn sanitation procedures and learn how to manage simple tasks. RISE Job Coaches, who are specialist teaching assistants, are available to support students as needed.
“It always amazes me to see how well they handle sanitation issues,” says Sandra Biasetti, director of food services at Quest Food Management Services, which operates restaurants in two district high schools. “When they come in, the first thing they do is wash their hands and then put on hair nets.”
“Sometimes we have issues with cooks doing these things,” Biasetti adds with a laugh.
Students learn to handle tasks such as preparing cookie dough, wrapping baked goods, restocking beverage coolers, and preparing frozen pizza for baking.
The cookie task is arguably the most popular task – on Fridays students can sample some of their crafts as ‘pay’ for their efforts.
Each hands-on session lasts 30-45 minutes and students spend a semester in the kitchen.
Students are a welcome presence in the kitchen, says Biasetti. “They are such happy children and they can’t wait to do their job,” she observes. Once they have completed their assigned tasks, they usually ask what else they can tackle. Staff and students generally develop a friendly relationship during the semester. A student, whose second language is Spanish, enjoys joking with a staff member who also speaks Spanish. Students notice when an employee is away for the day.
“From the bottom of my heart, I really love having them,” observes Biasetti.
Colclasure also saw the link. “All the staff love them,” she says.
Besides bringing a positive vibe to the kitchen, the students also lighten the burden of work, at least a little. Even helping out with something like panning the cookies, for example, means “I don’t have to do this or look for someone to bake 150 cookies,” says Biasetti.
While one of the goals of RISE is to learn about basic cooking, cleaning and hygiene for future independent living, experience in a working kitchen promises another potential benefit for students: a job. Understanding workflow and the importance of sanitation is invaluable, and being part of the team could give them an edge when applying for a restaurant job.
Several years ago, a former RISE student ended up on the department’s payroll. “She was autistic, but she was very smart, especially with numbers,” Biasetti recalled. She found a way to adapt to this condition: “I had to be very direct with her.” Working with a RISE coach, Biasetti made a daily to-do list and had it laminated. “If I gave her the exact same tasks, she would be fine.”
“What Sandra does is so important to our student community,” notes Colclasure. “It is so difficult for people with intellectual disabilities to find employment, but they are hard workers and they bring so much to a work environment.