Special needs students learn a latte of valuable life skills running coffee businesses

Every Wednesday morning at Lincoln Middle School in Mount Prospect, special needs students and their teacher don green aprons and become baristas.

Their SOARBucks coffee delivery service is part of the school's Students of the Structured Opportunities for Academics & Responsibility program, which aims to build life skills applicable in real-world settings.

"I love it because I get to interact with the students in a positive, fun way," said school nurse Susie Smith, who orders from SOARBucks every week. "And they make good coffee."

Teacher Krystal Luce started Lincoln's SOARBucks in 2019 after learning about a similar program at the Career Life Skills program at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. With a grant from the Mount Prospect Elementary School District 57 Education Foundation and support from the school, she purchased coffee-making equipment and supplies.

In a space once used for home economics classes - a washing machine in the room serves as a reminder of that era - students alternate between tallying receipts and preparing the coffee.

Projection screens display spreadsheets listing orders and totals from the previous week. A whiteboard shows the students their responsibilities for the day, whether they belong to the cleanup crew, the shutdown crew or the refill crew.

The students reflect a wide range of abilities. Some need greater academic support, while others are at grade level or higher in math.

"Some of them will be gainfully employed in the future, and these are skills that they can apply to those kind of jobs," Luce said.

Half the money earned from sales is poured back into the program. The other half is shared with the students, who vote on how to use it. Votes have led to a McDonald's breakfast and a doughnut party.

Among the SOARBucks students is 14-year-old Emmy Foster, who has a rare genetic neurological disorder called Rett syndrome. She is nonverbal but can communicate through a speech-generating device.

"I really like doing SOARBucks because I think it's pretty cool to learn about how to run a business," Emmy said. "I also really like interacting with our customers. I like bringing a little joy to people and serving others and helping them enjoy their day."

Another school district grounding its students in coffee culture is Northwest Suburban High School District 214.

All the district's schools have similar programs: Bison Grounds at Buffalo Grove High School, EG Caffeine at Elk Grove High School, Forest Brew at Forest View Education Center in Arlington Heights, Brewed Awakenings at Hersey High School, Prospect Perks at Prospect High School, Milo's Inc. at Rolling Meadows High School, and Cat's Coffee at Wheeling High School.

Genny Rosenberg, director of the Career Life Skills Program at Hersey, said Brewed Awakenings is a coffee cart that operates two to three days per week.

The microbusiness is an example of how programs that serve students with special needs promote functional, independent living and foundational skill development.

"Everybody is looking to build opportunities for the students to develop work habits and work skills, so that when they go out into the community, they are employable and can sustain themselves in a real community-based kind of job," she said. "Gone are the days of the sheltered workshop."

It is a start-to-finish operation, beginning with setup and proceeding to takedown, cleanup and storage.

"Students are our big customers," Rosenberg said. "There is math involved, and the most important thing is that social interaction and that social communication with the customer."

Kathleen Rafferty, special education teacher at Prospect High School, said Prospect Perks provides students the opportunity to learn vocational skills in school.

"There is a lot of research out there that indicates the sooner students start practicing vocational skills, the better success they have when they leave school for employment," she said.

Students are involved with the planning, prepping and operation of the coffee cart, which is located in the Hub, the school's tech center.

The operation was helped by funding from the high school's Teacher-Parent Council and a private donor, which helped pay for high-end coffee equipment that brews as many as 20 to 30 cups of coffee at a time.

Starbucks employees volunteered to train the students, particularly in the process of creating their special cold brew coffee, Rafferty said.

It's an invaluable practical experience for the students.

"You can practice communication skills all you want in the classroom in a structured setting," she said. "But really, it's amazing to be able to teach it in that authentic experience. It's such a different experience when you're living it in real time, versus trying to simulate it in a classroom."

  Teacher Krystal Luce talks with student Emmy Foster before making a coffee delivery at Lincoln Middle School in Mount Prospect. Emmy participates in the school's SOARBucks program, which Luce started in 2019. Paul Valade/
  A list of various coffee service responsibilities is written out for the SOARBucks students at Lincoln Middle School in Mount Prospect. Paul Valade/
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