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Serving lessons in life

Tyrone Elementary's Hawk Cafe hums when autistic and exceptionality students test job and life skills on luncheon guests.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 26, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Nathan Maniere's eyes lit up when he saw his grandmother at his classroom door shortly after 11 a.m. Thursday. He broke off a conversation with a classmate and bounded toward her. He slipped his hand in hers and led her to a table for four covered with a white cloth edged in lace.

"Welcome to Hawk Cafe," he said. "May I take your order?"

Nathan, 10, is one of nine students in Michele Kochanik's fourth- and fifth-grade class for children with autism at Tyrone Elementary, 2401 66th St. N. The students joined Jamie Bentley's fourth- and fifth-grade class for children with varying exceptionalities Thursday and Friday to prepare and serve lunch to nearly 70 parents and faculty members as part of their life skills training curriculum.

The two classes are among several at Tyrone Elementary that cater to children with autism and varying exceptionalities, which include moderate to severe learning disabilities, emotional disabilities and physical impairments, according to achievement specialist Barbara Teeter.

"These are kids whose development is more than two years behind their chronological age," she said, adding that part of Tyrone's strategy for helping these students reach their highest achievement is community-based instruction, a curriculum that teaches academic skills in real-life settings.

She explained that Mrs. Kochanik and Mrs. Bentley use a combination of classroom instruction and community visits to prepare their students to live as independently as possible.

The Hawk Cafe, introduced by Mrs. Kochanik after she saw a similar program at Tyrone Middle School four years ago, is a natural extension of the students' weekly grocery store trips and in-classroom food preparation. Her children and Mrs. Bentley's varying exceptionalities students host the cafe several times a year to practice their skills on a larger audience.

The cafe, and community-based instruction in general, is good for students with autism, Mrs. Kochanik said, because it helps them connect what they learn in the classroom to the outside world.

"Autism is a lifelong, pervasive disease that affects every aspect of a person's life, primarily their language and social interaction skills," she said. "(The children) have problems if there is too much going on around them. Loud noises bother them. Touch can hurt, or they may not feel anything at all."

Their language-processing disorder prevents them from learning the way other children do, she said. They need hands-on, individualized instruction with a lot of repetition. She estimates that only a handful of the children with autism she has taught since coming to Tyrone eight years ago will go to college, but the majority of them will be able to live independently and maintain jobs. Their involvement with Hawk Cafe, for example, teaches them real-life restaurant skills.

Planning for last week's cafe got under way the first week of school. The students scanned grocery ads to find the best buys, then referred to the USDA's food guide pyramid to plan a meal that was both cost-effective and nutritious. They settled on stir-fried beef and broccoli over rice, salad, rolls, and a selection of homemade desserts including cupcakes and brownies.

They made a grocery list, shopped for the ingredients, marinated the beef and baked the desserts earlier in the week. They started preparation for the first day's meal when they got to school Thursday morning, and by 8:30, Mrs. Kochanik's classroom was bustling. Cheryl Collette, a teacher's assistant, helped several students make a huge tomato-and-lettuce salad. Bonnie Hartsfield, 10, used a vegetable peeler to scrape cucumbers while Matthew Smith, 10, helped chop celery. Mrs. Collette took the opportunity to teach a math lesson.

"If we had 26 stalks of celery and we cut them into eight pieces each, how many slices of celery would we have?" she asked Matthew. "Would we add or multiply to get the answer?"

"Add," Matthew said. He hunched over a calculator as Mrs. Collette punched in the numbers. After coming up with an answer, she showed him how much simpler it would have been if they had multiplied.

Next door in Mrs. Bentley's classroom, five round tables set with plastic utensils wrapped in paper napkins had replaced the desks. A vase filled with red silk roses stood at the center of each table, along with blue ceramic salt and pepper shakers, sugar, cream and salad dressing.

Mrs. Bentley had assigned each of her seven students a job earlier in the week based on his or her abilities. Recognizing them as individuals is important, she said, because they have such a wide range of disabilities.

"Some kids are very capable as far as sports are concerned. Some are good artists," she said. "What one can do, another may need help with."

But generally, she said, they need repetition to learn.

"If it takes (a child with normal development) five repetitions for something to go from short-term to long-term memory, for a child who has cognitive delays it can take 40 or more repetitions," she said. She added that community-based instruction is good for them because it teaches functional skills, like how to write a grocery list and count change.

While Mrs. Bentley worked with the servers, Mrs. Collette went over the table busing procedure with Augie Evenue, 9, Matthew, and Sonja Bernard, 9. After counting off the steps on her fingers, she asked them to take turns practicing until they felt comfortable with their assignment.

Just before the first guests arrived, Josh Ryan, 10, stationed himself in his wheelchair at the classroom door to greet the arrivals. Brendan Kuhr, 9, also in a wheelchair, sat just inside the door at a desk that held an adding machine and a cash-register drawer filled with singles and coins. Teacher's assistant Lori Bandelow sat next to him, quizzing him on how much change he would return to a guest who handed him a $5 bill.

"One dollar," he said triumphantly. "If it's one person, I won't have to use (the adding machine), but if it's more than one, I probably will," he said.

Bonnie's parents, Rena and Daniel Hartsfield, were the first guests to arrive. They sat at Table 1, the table assigned to Donald Taylor. The 9-year-old snapped to attention, welcoming them to the cafe and bringing them iced teas. He served them their entrees, and after Mrs. Kochanik told Bonnie she could join them for lunch, Donald went back and served her as well.

The room filled steadily during the next half hour. Children wove in and out, delivering drinks and food as parents and faculty carried on cross-table conversations.

Mrs. Kochanik and Mrs. Bentley proclaimed the cafe a success. Early calculations indicated they would at least break even and be able to put the proceeds toward the next cafe. But the greatest success is the self-esteem and feeling of independence the children receive from knowing they did a good job, Mrs. Kochanik said. The smiles on their faces and the light in their eyes keep her going when she gets discouraged.

"The rate of progress that you see is so small. Sometimes you feel they're not making any at all," she said. "But these are really cool and unique people. You have to be willing to accept that small steps are still progress."

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