When students with special needs reach high school, parents, guardians and schools must start planning out the future of young people who struggle with a variety of learning disabilities.
For some students at Cotopaxi High School the exploration into life after high school takes the form of the Coffee Cart program.
The program is the creation of Tom and Julie Lang, whose son Gus Belt, a Cotopaxi freshman, was diagnosed with autism at 1 year old.
With Belt’s entry into high school, the Langs began to think about what his life would be post-high school.
“What would he do? Where would he live. Who would take care of him? How will he support himself? We thought he loves people and he loves to work hard. How do we support Gus when we are not here? And most importantly, how will Gus and other kids like him support themselves when parents are not around?” the Langs asked on their website.
Part of the Langs’ answer to those questions was the Gus Belt Family Foundation.
Objectives and purpose of the foundation are:
• To provide special education students in high school with the opportunity to learn job skills that can be used in the real world to find employment.
• To create a more inclusive and disablilty-aware environment among the educational environment, the business and professional community and thereby society at large.
• To allow special education students to be considered as capable, employable and productive members of the job market.
The first job skills program to grow out of the Langs’ desire to help prepare special needs students for the future is the Coffee Cart Program.
Curriculum for the program was developed by Julie Lang following guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Labor and Employment Office of Disability Employment.
Starting in ninth grade, special needs students with individual education plans (IEPs) in Colorado must have an Individualized Career and Academic Plan (ICAP) with goals designed to prepare them for post-high school work environment.
ICAP is a multi-year process that begins in middle and high school and continues into adulthood.
Colorado Department of Education recommends that each school district develop plans to begin ICAP instruction in middle school to prepare students to develop a comprehensive ICAP plan in ninth grade.
The Coffee Cart curriculum teaches specific job skills in six key areas: communication, attitude and enthusiasm, teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving, networking and professionalism.
For students with disabilities ranging from moderate to severe, developing skills to support those areas can be a challenge.
Some students in the class struggle with severe dyslexia, some have trouble making eye contact and some have difficulty articulating speech.
However, all are given roles within the program at which they can be successful.
With the program, students learn to make and serve coffee and to operate a coffee delivery service and walk-in customer business at school.
Each student learns different jobs of the program, including greeter, server, barista, cashier, stocker, custodian, dishwasher, bookkeeper and team leader.
During class Lang goes over what the students have learned, providing visual cues in photos and performing practice and review of skills.
The class interviews a staff member each week about their own job experiences, which contributes to oral communication practice.
Students practice making eye contact and communication skills in addition to job performance tasks.
The program has moved out of the school and into the community as students have visited several businesses to get a taste of the real work world.
Cotopaxi students have visited Tony’s Mountain Pizza in Silver Cliff, Starbucks in Cañon City and Brown Dog Coffee Co. and Little Red Hen Bakery in Salida.
At each business, class members are given tasks, and they review their experience when they get back to the classroom.
The class meets for an hour each day, and none of the students are accompanied by aides that accompany some of them to their other classes.
Lang said the idea is to see what the students can accomplish independently.
Most students had favorite and least favorite aspects of the class and the jobs they do.
Belt said he liked greeting people.
Senior Grace Woodfin said her favorite thing was counting money, but opening up to people was hard for her.
Justin Robitaille, a junior, said it can be challenging trying to communicate what you need.
Justin’s sister Victoria Robitaille, a senior, said the best part of the class was being able to “work with these amazing students and smile with them.”
Woodfin said she likes helping other people and not being as shy as she used to be.
All the students have an idea of what they’d like to be when they graduate.
Freshman Andrew Woodfin would like to be an engineer. Justin Robitaille wants to be a computer engineer. Kelsey Buss, a freshman, wants to work in a restaurant. Woodfin has visions of being a wildlife biologist. Victoria Robitaille has her sights set on accounting or opening an autistic care center for young children. Belt likes being a greeter. Sophomore Nico Soucy has a passion for railroads.
Julie Lang said 80 percent of kids with disabilities don’t have jobs.
She said the program is taught with the mind set that these students will have a job after high school.
The program has expanded to about six schools across the country, including one other Colorado school.
The program is free to schools, said Tom Lang, and funded by the foundation. “We provide the curriculum and lesson plans,” he said.
For more information about Gus Belt Family Foundation and the Coffee Cart program, visit gusbeltfamilyfoundation.org.