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GREENVILLE, SC (AP) – Greenville County Schools announced a “unique” partnership between their food and nutrition services and special education departments.
Schoolchildren in special needs education have the opportunity to acquire their culinary employability qualifications and training to become a school-based business enterprise. The first group of students started out in the state-of-the-art kitchen facility at Roper Mountain Science Center in Greenville.
Students started training last week when the program started, and students have already learned basic food safety and hygiene practices, worked with recipes, mixed ingredients, and even had the opportunity to harvest fresh green beans and pumpkin 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 a specific position, it does offer special needs students the opportunity to acquire the professional skills necessary to acquire jobs with living wages.
Joe Urban Greenville County Schools Director of Food and Nutritions Services said discussions about starting the program took place after the new sustainability building opened at Roper Mountain Science Center. He said they learned that the building would have a kitchen so students could get hot lunches on field trips.
The conversation then began with the special education department and board members to help these students recognize their skills for labor, Urban said. Six to nine students are enrolled in the program at a time, he added.
In order for students to earn the proficiency certificate, they must complete 360 hours of work, and they will be accounting for those hours as part of that, according to Traci Hogan, assistant superintendent for special education services. By the end of the nine week program, they may have another job at Roper Mountain, at their school, or elsewhere with a community partner.
“It really depends on their interest and what’s available,” added Hogan. “This particular program is in its early stages, but it is unique in that it is a district facility designed with three purposes in mind. The education of our own students with disabilities was one of three. “
The other purpose besides providing meals to the local students during the field trips is to have the food and nutrition services “test” food and prepare catering orders, Hogan said. The Roper Mountain Science Center is available for rent, and schools and programs can order food prepared for meetings, events, etc.
Hogan said one of the hashtags for special education was #makingconnections.
“Over the years we’ve done a lot of general and specialty compounding to maximize our work and results for the students,” said Hogan. “We’re also working to connect with families, teachers, and students across the county, as well as, of course, the community and businesses. That is what made us call the kitchen Connections Café. “
Amanda Drew, kitchen manager at Roper Mountain Science Center, said the program had received a lot of positive feedback from parents.
“Parents tell us that students enjoy the independence they learn and enjoy being part of a team and working side by side,” said Drew. “They love to be on their feet and move around all day instead of sitting in a classroom. We are really proud of these students. “
CONNECTIONS CAFE DIFFERENT FROM ‘ONLY GOING TO SCHOOL’
Special education student and program participant Jada Huckabee, 19, said she wasn’t 100% convinced that she would work in the culinary arts but wanted to “step in the door to see what the program was like. I enjoy it, ”she said.
“My favorite thing about work here is feeling an adult,” said 19-year-old special needs educator and program participant Gary Williams. “It’s different than just going to school and I like to have more responsibility.”
Logan Sham, 19, a 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’s high schools for grade credit and there are no additional costs for students on the program.
Lauren Couchois, culinary specialist for Greenville County Schools Food and Nutrition Services, said these students never had a job or went from their parents other than school. She spoke of a student who had already “thrived” through the program.
“It was incredible and touching to watch. They start to be shy and then they start to come out of their shell more, ”Couchois added.
“There was definitely a need, a love, a desire to help special education focus and work on qualifications to join the workforce as soon as they leave the school district,” Couchois said. “It’s important to show everyone in the workforce that these students can be employed.”
CREATING A WAY TO EMPLOYMENT
Greenville County Schools board member Chuck Saylors and Hogan were involved in the early stages of introducing these types of programs into the school system.
About five years ago, Saylors and Hogan were in a training group together, pondering creative ways to improve public education in the state, Saylors said.
“We decided to take the group project a little further and talked about special needs education and employability,” added Saylors. For example, he said that even though one of his children with special needs was an A student, he should have taken his GED to get a certificate of employment, which is extremely difficult.
Saylors said Hogan is talking about a program at a Horry County technical school that gives class credits for employability so that special education students can have career opportunities and get a skill-appropriate job such as a nursing assistant or someone who works in culinary arts.
The two then took their idea of employability certificates to state law to make it law. The Special Education Department selects which students are able to take such a program.
“We’ve secured a scholarship and set up a school-based business at every high school in Greenville County that essentially teaches students how to run a small business,” said Saylors.
“They have so much to offer the Greenville community and are definitely an example of how we’re working to build a better graduate,” added Hogan.
“I take great pride in the programs, which are a perfect example of what can be done to enable our students with special needs to get a living, social benefit job. It took a long time with my son. Had he had this type of program while in school, he would have been more productive. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. I hope this becomes a national best practice for all students to have this type of opportunity. “