GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Greenville County Schools announced a “unique” partnership between its food and nutrition services and special education departments.
Special education students have the opportunity to earn their Culinary Employability Credentials and School-Based Business Enterprises Training. The first group of students have started at the state-of-the-art kitchen facility at Roper Mountain Science Center in Greenville.
The students started training last week as the program kicked off and students have already learned basic food safety and sanitation procedures, working with recipes, mixing ingredients, and even had the chance to harvest fresh green beans and squash from the Living History Farm.
The partnership will serve as a national model for preparing students for success in the workplace, according to Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services. While the program does not lead to any specific job, it gives special education students the opportunity to gain necessary workplace skills to acquire living-wage jobs.
Joe Urban Greenville County Schools director of food and nutritions services said discussions to start the program came after the new sustainability building opened at Roper Mountain Science Center. He said they learned the building would have a kitchen facility for students to have the opportunity to get hot lunches on field trips.
The conversation then started rolling with the special education department and board members for the possibility to help those students earn creditability with workforce skills, Urban said. The program has six to nine students participating at a time, he added.
For students to earn the employability credential, they must obtain 360 work hours and they will clock these hours as part of that, according to Traci Hogan, assistant superintendent for special education services. At the end of the nine-week program, they may have another job at Roper Mountain, at their school, or another location with a community partner.
“It really depends on their interest and what is available,” Hogan added. “This particular program is in its early stages, but is unique in that it is a district facility that was designed with three purposes. Training for our own students with disabilities was one of the three.”
The other purpose aside from providing on-site meals for students during field trips is for the food and nutrition services to ‘test’ foods and prepare catering-type orders, Hogan said. Roper Mountain Science Center can be rented out, and schools and programs can order food to be prepared for meetings, events, etc.
Hogan said one of the hashtags for the special education department is #makingconnections.
“Over the years, we have done a lot of work on general ed and special ed connecting to maximize our work and outcomes for students,” said Hogan. “We also work to make connections with families, teachers and students across the district, and of course community and businesses. So that led us to name the kitchen Connections Café.”
Amanda Drew, Roper Mountain Science Center kitchen manager said the program has received a lot of positive feedback from parents.
“Parents are telling us that the students are enjoying the independence they are learning and enjoying being a part of a team, working side-by-side with each other,” Drew said. “They love being on their feet and moving all day versus sitting in a classroom setting. We are really proud of these students.”
CONNECTIONS CAFE DIFFERENT FROM ‘JUST GOING TO SCHOOL’
Special education student and program participant Jada Huckabee, 19, said she isn’t 100% sold on working in culinary arts, but wanted to get her “foot in the door to see how the program was. I enjoy it,” she said.
“My favorite thing about working here is feeling grown up,” said 19-year-old special education student and program participant Gary Williams. “It’s different from just going to school and I like having more responsibilities.”
Logan Sham, 19, special education student and program participant said he enjoys working with recipes and learning how to be safe in the kitchen.
Drew added that all students are currently enrolled in Greenville County high schools to earn class credit and there is no extra cost for students in the program.
Lauren Couchois, Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services culinary specialist, said these students have never had a job or been away from their parents other than to go to school. She spoke of one student who “absolutely thrived” already as a result of the program.
“It was amazing and touching to watch. They start out being shy and then they start to come out of their shell more,” Couchois added.
“There was definitely a need, a love, a want to help special needs education, focusing and working on credentials to get hired in the workforce once they leave the school district,” said Couchois. “It’s important to show anyone in the workforce that these students are hirable.”
CREATING A PATH TO EMPLOYMENT
Greenville County Schools’ Board Member Chuck Saylors, and Hogan, were involved in the beginning stages of launching these types of programs in the school system.
About five years ago, Saylors and Hogan were in a training group together and thinking of creative ways to enhance public education in the state, Saylors said.
“We decided to take the group project a little further and talked about special education and employability,” Saylors added. For example, he said, although one of his children who has special needs was a straight-A student, he would have had to take his GED in order to get employment credentials, which is extremely difficult.
Saylors said Hogan was talking about a program at a Horry County technical school that gives class credits for employability, so special education students have career options and can get a job commensurate to their abilities like a nursing assistant or someone who works in culinary arts.
The pair then took their idea of employability credentials to the state Legislature to make it law, in contrast to occupational diplomas, students would have more options and skills to eventually get living-wage jobs, Saylors said. The special education department chooses which students are capable of taking on such a program.
“We secured a grant and put a school-based business in every Greenville County high school, essentially students learning how to operate a small business,” Saylors continued.
“They have so much to offer the Greenville community and are definitely an example of how we are working to build a better graduate,” Hogan added.
“I am very proud of the programs, which are a perfect example of what can be done to give our special needs students the capability to get a living-wage job with benefits. It took a long time for my son to do that. If he could have had this type of program while he was in school, he could have been more productive. It’s a win-win for everyone. I hope this will become a national best practice for all students to have this type of opportunity.”