Teachers devote their careers to shaping young minds. Who knew they would use coffee as a way to teach social skills, money management and to build relationships among peers?
In two St. Vrain Valley Schools — Trail Ridge Middle School and Longmont Estates Elementary — students with special needs are practicing social skills as they manage their own business — a coffee cart.
At Trail Ridge Middle School, the coffee cart delivers fresh brew to teachers through a partnership between special needs and general education students. The idea for the program began a few years ago as Assistant Principal Lynsey Robinson worked with Significant Supports Needs, or SSN, teacher Becci Warren. The duo had hoped to implement it during the 2020 school year but COVID-19 thwarted the plan. The 2021-22 school year is the first chance Trail Ridge had to roll out the program, according to Robinson.
The coffee cart serves two purposes, Robinson said, making inclusion of the special needs students a more commonplace practice while also giving the SSN students opportunities to engage with teachers and peers while learning valuable social skills.
The SSN students take on different roles — passing out menus to teachers, taking the orders and making the orders. The next element that will be incorporated will teach the students money skills and basic economics, working with fake money to develop math in social settings.
General education students support the SSN students working the cart, helping them make and take orders and offering encouragement. The program has brought the student populations together, Robinson said. More students have reached out to join the Lunch Bunch groups that socialize with SSN students and Trail Ridge maintains a wait list of students that want to help out with the coffee cart.
“I see excitement and engagement, with the (SSN) students coming out of their shells and I see the general education students breaking out of their typical friend groups and reaching across the cafeteria to be with different people,” Robinson said.
The program has been so successful this year, Robinson is preparing the general education students to take over the cart entirely.
“It’s work that has definitely carried me through this year and I’m very passionate about it,” Robinson said. “This just highlights practical ways we can create these opportunities for general education and SSN students that don’t have to weigh us down.”
Longmont Estates Elementary also started a coffee cart with its Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD students. Rachel Ortiz, one of the autism teachers at Longmont Estates, uses the coffee cart program to teach the students skills of measurement and following instructions while encouraging them to be more social and practice their communication skills.
Order forms are sent out to teachers on Wednesdays, then students pick them up on Thursdays and coffee is delivered to teachers Friday morning. Using a color-code system, students match the orders with the teachers. Ortiz estimates the students deliver 20 to 25 cups of coffee each Friday.
The cart encourages ASD students — who may struggle with social anxiety or reading social cues — to engage with teachers and peers, Ortiz said.
Some of the skills ASD students practice are getting better at eye contact and responding to greetings through the work with the coffee cart, according to Ortiz. The coffee cart experience also allows ASD students more time in the classroom interacting with peers and teachers, Ortiz said.
Ortiz and other SSN staff have seen a difference in how ASD students interact on the playground. “Many children and adults on the autism spectrum need help in learning how to act in different types of social situations. They often have the desire to interact with others, but may not know how to engage friends or may be overwhelmed by the idea of new experiences,” according to the Autism Speaks website.
Students have shown confidence initiating playground games with their peers and have been observed generally feeling more comfortable with social interaction, Ortiz said.
“It’s been nice to pass general education classrooms on our way to specials and lunch and those kids recognize my (ASD) kids,” Ortiz said.