Classroom Café: A Recipe for Success
Decision to Serve Transforms Students into Business Owners
In a rural Mississippi town, on a quiet two-way street, the local school is bustling. Its busy halls filled with students, scholars, artists, athletes and now…entrepreneurs.
“Business is booming,” smiles Genia Thomas.
Thomas is the special education teacher at Falkner Junior High/High School. With a curriculum as vast as her student body, she admits, keeping busy isn’t an issue.
“I teach many subjects – math, science, history and English - to students ranging from seventh graders to seniors,” she smiled. “I love it. And I’m always looking for new opportunities to help my class develop critical life skills.”
From Classroom to Café:
Thomas is cooking up a new project with her special education students. Once a month, their pencils and books are replaced with aprons and warm smiles at the Eagle’s Nest Café.
Located on the school grounds, the café is a spot for faculty to sit down for a hearty lunch. Thomas’ students provide the hospitality.
“The café is building on the lessons we learn in class. The students are developing valuable life skills - including money management, delegation, organization and customer service.”
Thomas says the idea started last summer.
“I attended a workshop through the Mississippi Council on Economic Education (MCEE), which emphasized the importance of exposing special education students to life experiences beyond the classroom. Owning and operating a business is part of that.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, less than 20 percent of U.S. residents with special needs were employed. While that number is rising, the struggle to find employment still exists.
The state of Mississippi, along with many other states, supports the teaching of life skills classes as part of the special education curriculum. Thomas knew it would take a lot of hard work, but with the help of the Mississippi Council of Developmental Disabilities, she could create a real life working environment.
Thomas was determined to help her students learn the skills they need to be able to do some, if not all, things on their own, and to one day hold a job. By allowing her students to manage a café, she could teach them both life and business skills. Starting an entrepreneur program would be a win-win.
She applied for entrepreneurial seed funds from the Mississippi Council on Economic Education, which were provided by a grant from the Mississippi Council on Developmental Disabilities. Shortly after, she received the funding and Eagle’s Nest Café was created.
“The council awarded Falkner Junior High/High School with the funding needed to start a special education entrepreneur program,” she beamed. “The Eagle’s Nest Café is possible because of this incredible generosity.”
Opening Doors to New Opportunities
Starting a café required hard work and planning, but Thomas says the payoff is worth it.
“It offers something for everyone. Some of our students come to us knowing how to perform basic tasks like cooking and cleaning. I’ve had others who didn’t know how to dry dishes. It wasn’t a lack of cognitive ability…it was a lack of being taught.”
Thomas says patience is critical. She wants students to take the necessary time needed to learn.
“I don’t want teachers, parents, or friends doing tasks for them. I know our students can shine. They can all learn if we give them enough time. Even if we make a mistake - that’s okay, we can get in there and try again. That’s why I love the café. It exposes them to a wide range of responsibilities.”
While working at the Eagle’s Nest, students cook, clean, bake, serve meals and handle money. They also go grocery shopping. At the store, the class learns how to manage a budget while purchasing healthy options like fruits and vegetables.
But to Thomas, perhaps the most important lesson of all, is the students’ interaction with others.
“The café takes them out of their comfort zone. A lot of times, special education students sit in the same classroom with the same students and teachers. The Eagle’s Nest Café allows them to learn how to interact with other people. These types of experiences will contribute to future success in the workforce.”
Thomas sees the change of attitude in her students. They went from being timid with their work, to excited to get a job, to confident in their future.
A Valuable Investment
Profits from the Eagle’s Nest Café are used to purchase kitchen tools and replenish food supplies. Funds are also invested in special education class field trips.
“It’s so beautiful to watch this unfold,” said Thomas. “They just absorbed it like a sponge. The students look forward to working in the café. I love seeing their confidence bloom. This opportunity proves when you dedicate the time and energy – you can succeed. Our students are capable of anything they put their mind to.”
Thomas is looking forward to the program growing even more next year. Now that students have a year under their belts, she is excited to kick it up a notch and watch them build even more life skills and truly shine!
State Farm is a financial supporter of the Mississippi Council on Economic Education (MCEE) and its efforts to increase financial and economic literacy in schools. For more information about the MCEE and its programs, click here.
Other schools in Mississippi take part in the MCEE entrepreneur program. Check out participating schools by clicking on their locations below.