Galesburg’s Common Grounds gives experience for special education students
GALESBURG — What first began on an AV cart in the teachers’ lounge has now become a full fledged coffee shop in the lobby of Galesburg High School.
Known as Common Grounds, the shop is staffed and run by students in the Secondary Transitional Experience Program (STEP), an operation that aims to help those in the school’s special-education program gain workplace skills.
Formed by District 205 and the Department of Rehabilitative Services, STEP currently has 14 students in paid employment and 11 in volunteering positions. While four students run Common Grounds, selling coffee to other students before the first bell rings and delivering hot drinks to teachers throughout the day, STEP students are also employed in other job sites in the community such as at Walmart, Hy-Vee or The Salvation Army.
“We focus on the students we think are employable but who are having, maybe, trouble finding a job possibly because of their disability,” Luan Statham, the Assistant Director of Special Education said at a District 205 board meeting on Feb. 14. “And maybe they’re just lacking some workplace skills that we can teach them so that they can go out and get a job.”
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Common Grounds opened its furnished coffee shop in January, but the operation has been ongoing since 2015. Randi Grodjesk, a special education teacher of over 22 years at Galesburg High School, said it began with a Keurig coffee machine in the teachers’ lounge after they wanted to find a way for the students to work in-house.
“Fast forward to this year, thanks to everyone here, we have a built-in counter front and center right when you walk in the door—full fledged coffee shop with all the works. It’s beautiful,” Grodjesk said.
Kenny Wilson, a senior at Galesburg High School, worked Common Grounds when it first began as only for teachers. Since it reopened in January, he has worked in the shop each school day morning, serving coffee to students and staff.
“It’s about learning what customer service is and how you do it,” Wilson said. “You be polite, you be a good listener and you give them eye contact. It’s a good job. It’s my very first job before I graduate.”
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Grodjesk said running Common Grounds is an opportunity for the students to start up and operate a small business inside the high school. Grodjesk said the skills they are learning include making the actual coffee, but also handling money, time management, how to be reliable and work as a team.
“It’s really exciting that we have a coffee shop in our high school, that’s a novel thing,” Grodjesk said. “But it’s so much more than that because it’s an opportunity for these kids to get these skills that they’re going to need.”
Grodjesk also said that from a social aspect, the Common Grounds workers are proud of their jobs and that other students they talk to outside the program often ask how they could work for Common Grounds.
“We’re running a cash register, we’re learning how to make drinks, they’re following recipes — just the whole experience is so close to being a real life experience for them,” Grodjesk said. “Out of the four (students), I think three of them could go out to any coffee shop in the community and they’d be lucky to have them.”
Statham said studies show paid work experience during high school doubles a student’s chance of competitive employment after high school. After STEP participants complete a job-search class, the end goal for the program is to deliver “outcomes” after students graduate.
An outcome is defined by students receiving competitive, paid and unsubsidized employment wherein they work at least 240 hours in a minimum of 60 days. Statham said that one student has already obtained an outcome this year, and they project the STEP program to have six outcomes by the end of the year. In the past, Statham said, there have been up to 14 or 16 outcomes in a year.
John Asplund, the District 205 Superintendent, said he is glad that the long standing program finally has a permanent work space inside the high school.
“It’s been a great program for a number of years and I’m just thrilled that we have a dedicated space for them now,” Asplund. “It gives kids another opportunity to learn skills, and that’s always gratifying because that’s what we’re here for.”