Coffee cart brews success for Ecker Hill Middle School students
Program teaches important soft and hard skills to students with disabilities
There’s a buzz in the air at Ecker Hill Middle School every Thursday – and it isn’t because of the fast-approaching weekend.
Each week, students receiving special education services make the rounds with carts stocked full of customary coffee, tasty tea and other satisfying snacks to help teachers fuel their mornings.
The project started more than five years ago at Trailside Elementary School as a way to help children with disabilities practice social skills, such as communication, as well as functional skills like math, and those involved say its since evolved into an essential part of the Park City School District.
“It really just brings out this whole school community,” said Liz Hamilton-Concannon, a special education teacher at Ecker Hill.
Hamilton-Concannon has been overseeing the middle school’s coffee cart program in some capacity for four years. It was originally led by a speech and communications specialist before the project was expanded into other schools throughout the district, which led to its incorporation into the special education support program “essential elements.”
Students enrolled in essential elements have severe disabilities, Hamilton-Concannon said, and they all participate in the coffee cart. Children with moderate disabilities can also take part in the activity based on their needs and goals, specifically if they want to improve their interpersonal skills.
During the life skills period each Wednesday, the students start working to prepare for coffee cart day. First, they craft an email that’s distributed to middle school staff asking for their orders. Next, they start putting together various supplies such as creamer, cups and carafes.
On Thursday, the students complete a final pre-check before they’re ready for work. They wash their hands and break off into separate groups for maximum efficiency. The students then head to the classrooms of those who requested a drink, hand-delivering it.
And because of the success of the program, which is funded by a yearly grant through the Park City Education Foundation, teachers no longer have to pay for their orders. While it benefits the students, it’s also a small way to boost the morale of middle school staff.
Hamilton-Concannon said the coffee cart teaches participants relevant day-to-day skills ranging from teamwork and leadership to staying on task and improving their fine motor abilities. They also have to learn short and long-term planning as they check stock, order supplies and make sure they stay within budget.
General education students can also use an elective period to become peer tutors. Peer tutors can assist their classmates with academics or life skill situations, typically partnering with a neurodivergent student and demonstrating positive examples.
“You’re getting so many layers [of education and development.] You’re scaffolding so much of this pre-vocational, ‘I’m going to be a part of my community’ feeling,” Hamilton-Concannon said. “We’re starting that now. They’re learning it in steps right next to their neurotypical peers.”
At this point in the school year, the fourth quarter, many of the young baristas feel more comfortable and confident with the project.
The students are now allocating job duties themselves based on their skills and interests, and have become more independent in working the cart, according to Hamilton-Concannon. This has allowed the special education teachers to take a step back and give the students more freedom in running the coffee cart because they know what’s expected of them.
It’s been amazing for Hamilton-Concannon to see how the coffee cart, in part, has led to the embracement of the disability community within Ecker Hill and across the School District. The program has also helped the majority of the participating students achieve the goals they’ve set by promoting a guaranteed lesson on life skills each week since its launch.
“We can’t go on a field trip every week, but they can do coffee cart in the school,” she said. “That’s my favorite. To really see that inclusion and those kids just beaming and glowing when a teacher says, ‘Thank you. You made my day.’ It makes them feel special.”
The Park City Education Foundation did help the middle schoolers take a trip to Lucky Ones Coffee, a business that focuses on employing people with disabilities, where they were able to speak with the baristas, who were former School District students, about what it is like to work.
When the students proceed to Treasure Mountain Junior High and Park City High School, they continue learning about employment by practicing what it’s like to fill out job applications and complete an interview.
The coffee cart is an embodiment of the special education participating students receive upon entering and advancing through the School District. Hamilton-Concannon said the scaffolding process, a strategy used in special education to break lessons down into manageable units with decreasing levels of support, starts early and educators continue building it with students over time.
She believes the coffee cart is 100% essential to the program.
“These are students that are going to be an asset to the community. By starting these programs in school, we are teaching them to be part of the smaller community, which then expands. It’s so important that they start now,” the educator said. “With the coffee cart, with our funding from the Park City Education Foundation, our students can do that. They’re a small population, but they are part of the Park City culture … and they will bring these skills to the community.”
Two wheels good
Teachers, parents, students and volunteers muster in the parking lot of the PC-MARC on Friday morning for the annual Bike to School day.
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