Students in a special program at St. Charles (Ill.) East High School get hands-on exposure to a commercial kitchen—the school cafeteria facility. Each day, a team of two or three joins the foodservice crew for one or two school periods to help with prep, learning both life skills and potential job skills in the process.
Reaching Independence through Support and Education, or RISE, provides individualized instruction and support to Community Unit School District 303 students with intellectual or multiple disabilities. The program combines academics, communication and self-advocacy to promote ultimate independence of the students.
A portion of each day is devoted to academics—reading, writing and math, says Christina Colclasure, a RISE teacher. Students also learn life skills such as grocery shopping and engage in work-based learning experiences.
In the cafeteria kitchen, the students are instructed in sanitation procedures and shown how to handle simple tasks. RISE job coaches, who are special ed teaching assistants, are on hand to support the students as needed.
“It always blows my mind how they stay on top of the sanitation stuff,” says Sandra Biasetti, food service director with Quest Food Management Services, which operates dining at two district high schools. “When they come in, the first thing they do is wash their hands, then put on hairnets.”
“Sometimes we have problems with the cooks doing these things,” Biasetti adds, with a laugh.
The students are shown how to handle jobs like panning up cookie dough, packaging the baked product, replenishing drink coolers and prepping frozen pizzas for baking.
Cookie duty is arguably the most popular task—on Fridays, the students get to sample some of their handiwork as a “payday” for their efforts.
Each hands-on session lasts 30 to 45 minutes, and students spend a semester in the kitchen.
The students are a welcome presence in the kitchen, Biasetti says. “They are such happy kids, and they look forward to doing their jobs,” she observes. Once they complete their assigned tasks, they typically ask what else they can tackle. The staff and students typically develop a friendly rapport during the semester. One student, whose second language is Spanish, likes to banter with a staffer who also speaks Spanish. The students notice when an employee is out for the day.
“From the bottom of my heart, I really love to have them,” Biasetti observes.
Colclasure has seen the connection as well. “All the staff love them,” she says.
Besides bringing a positive vibe to the kitchen, the students also ease the labor burden, at least a bit. Even helping with something like panning up cookies, for instance, means “I don’t have to do that or look for someone to get 150 cookies ready,” Biasetti says.
While one of the goals of RISE is learning more about cooking, cleaning and basic hygiene for future independent living, experience in a working kitchen promises another potential benefit for the students: a job. Understanding work flow and the importance of sanitation are invaluable, and their participation on the team could give them an advantage when applying for a position in foodservice.
Several years ago, one former RISE student actually ended up on the department’s payroll. “She was autistic, but she was very smart, especially with numbers,” Biasetti recalls. She found a way to accommodate that condition: “I had to be very direct with her.” Working with a RISE job coach, Biasetti prepared a list of daily duties and had it laminated. “If I gave her the exact same tasks, she would do well.”
“What Sandra is doing is so important for our community of students,” Colclasure notes. “It’s so difficult for individuals with intellectual disabilities to get jobs, but they’re hard workers and bring so much to a work environment.”