Every Wednesday morning, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and bagels fills the hallways of Heritage Elementary School. It emanates from a small room that has been transformed from a classroom into the corporate headquarters of Coffee Squirrels Enterprises. There, students from the school's Integrated Learning Center (ILC) become elementary entrepreneurs, selling coffee for fifty cents a cup and serving it up with a smile. They often start their short shift with an enthusiastic cry of "It's Coffee Squirrels day!"
School psychologist Adam Parker is the self-described "head nut" of Coffee Squirrels, which is the brainchild of the school's special education team. That team consists of Parker and the school's speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist and ILC teachers and para-professionals. Together they serve students with a wide variety of special needs.
"Students in our ILC have varying disabilities," said speech-language pathologist Heather Creech. "Some are diagnosed with autism, some have significant learning disabilities and they're younger so they're developmentally delayed. We have students with speech-language needs and some with emotional needs."
Last fall, the team came up with the idea of a weekly coffee shop to give ILC students a unique opportunity to further develop their social, reading, math and motor skills. Parker explained that the students build motor skills by learning how to safely brew and serve single cups of coffee, decaf, hot chocolate and apple cider. They work on their literacy skills by reading the order forms submitted by school staff members. Math comes in when they take money and make change. But Parker says the social skills the students develop may be the most important lesson.
"Our motto is 'Coffee Squirrels: Breaking kids out of their shell one cup at a time,'" Parker said. He explained that the ILC students have gotten to know teachers, staff members and other students outside the ILC as they make their weekly rounds. The ILC students have good conversations with their customers as they deliver their orders. One student, who is non-verbal, even uses a tablet with a talking app to communicate with teachers and other staff members as she delivers their coffee or cocoa.
The ILC students came up with the Coffee Squirrels name and logo and they are getting lots of support from parents and local business like StarBucks and Einstein Bros. Bagels, which have donated cups, coffee, bagels and other supplies. Since the students launched Coffee Squirrels last fall, they have raised more than $400. They donated some of that to the local StarBucks manager after they learned she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The rest will go toward a field trip to the zoo this spring.
The program has proven to be a fun and educational experience for the ILC students and something the entire school looks forward to every Wednesday.
"It's been a really cool process," Parker said. "Our students love it… Dropping off cups of coffee and some smiles."