At Southern Westchester BOCES’ St. Matthew’s School site, one of the formative experiences in the Therapeutic Support Program is off-site vocational training and skills development. Since the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made that impossible this year, staff members came up with an alternate option: Open a school store where students can purchase rewards items and gain work skills.
“We cannot go outside to work or interact with the community, so we are instead bringing the world of work and community practices to St. Matthew’s,” said Patrice Cookes, a teacher in the Therapeutic Support Program for Developmentally Delayed (TSP-DD) students.
Students in her class and that of teacher Philip Rucci interviewed for their jobs and learned about their responsibilities. Each week, they create the store menu, take inventory and identify items to be purchased. They take orders during Google Meet sessions and tally amounts owed by their customers, who are other students at St. Matthew’s, including those in the Autism Spectrum Disorders (AIIM) program.
“You have to go to Mr. Rucci’s class and you have to open up the cabinets that contain the items,” Enzo, a student, explained. After they locate what they are looking for, “We put stuff in a bag and once we finish that, we deliver it to classes.”
Some of the most popular items in the store, which opened in January, are Spicy Nacho Doritos, Grandma’s cookies with cream filling and slime. The inventory was selected based on a student preference survey. The workers follow stringent safety measures and leave deliveries outside classrooms.
Thomas, one of Enzo’s classmates, said he likes that he can earn points to buy his own items. He has also learned how to fill out time sheets for his work hours.
St. Matthew’s Principal Amanda Allison said staff members created class-wide behavioral protocols and tied them to a currency system in which students earn points – paper “dimes” – for wearing a mask, cleaning up, following directions and other important behaviors.
Students calculate their earnings each week and log the totals in their bankbooks. “They have to decide what they want subtracted from their bankbook and then they’ll see how much they have,” teacher Denise Hurvitz said. “So they are doing a functional learning of savings and using a bank.”
Many skills they practice are based on the school’s Essentials for Living curriculum, such as figuring out how many hours they would have to work to pay for an item. The cost of items is in line with real-world prices.
Each week, AIIM students review the menu and prepare for their Google Meet. Those who are learning remotely can order items by mail.
In one recent week, Heather, an AIIM student, earned $2.10 for washing her hands, waiting quietly and performing other tasks. A small pink unicorn plush toy on the menu caught her eye, and it cost $2.70. She had enough money in her bank account to buy it. “He’s nice and clean and soft,” she said, adding “Love it!”
Oscar, who is also in the AIIM program, was excited to order pretzels from the store after earning dimes for wearing a mask, doing his work and following directions.
The TSP-DD program rewards points a little differently, Mr. Rucci said. Kids come up with an amount they think they earned during a class. If it is less than what the teacher came up with, students plead their case.
“It’s about how to make better decisions. It’s about a little self-reflection,” Mr. Rucci said. “We want them to advocate for themselves.”
For TSP-DD students to earn points, they must adhere to their schedules for specials, like speech therapy and occupational therapy; participate in art, gym and music; and not go anywhere without permission.
“We kind of treat them like if this was your job and your boss gave you this schedule, this is what you have to do,” Mr. Rucci said.
“It’s a very cooperative experience between everybody and we’re giving the kids some real-life work experience in a non-real-life role,” he added.
Students in the TSP-DD program can work toward rewards with a higher value, such as a movie and popcorn in the classroom, or something from Amazon.com.
Having the store builds morale and has other benefits for students, such as real-world work experience, Ms. Cookes said. “It enhances their knowledge of budgeting skills, inventory skills, social-emotional skills, customer service skills and technology skills,” she said.
The educators are happy with the program and would like it to continue, especially with so much uncertainty about when pandemic restrictions will be lifted. “I cannot give them enough accolades for the hard work in such a hard year that they’ve done on behalf of our students,” Ms. Allison said of the teachers.