Wake Up Central

Feb 12, 2013

At around 1,900 students, Rapid City Central High School is bigger than some of South Dakota’s small towns.

Every small town needs a coffee shop, and Central High School now has one of its own. The shop is run entirely by students with disabilities. They don’t make coffee for their peers–rather each morning they serve coffee to the school’s teachers and staff.

SDPB’s Charles Michael Ray paid a visit to the “Wake Up Central” Coffee Shop and brought back this story. 

It’s a few minutes before 8 a.m. on a school day, and a few students are hurrying in the main entrance of Central High School to make their morning classes.    Inside a small enclave in the teachers’ lounge, two young men are working with a pair a steaming espresso machines.  

"If it’s a 16-ounce, we put two, but if it’s an eight ounce, we put one.  Then we put a half a cup of milk that we steam until it gets to the red zone," says Tyson, a student at Rapid City Central.   

Trevor and Tyson are focused on their work: they’re turning out flavored lattes and coffees to order. Another student is making deliveries right to the teacher’s desks. The kids working here enjoy what they’re doing.

"It’s pretty nice making coffee for other people and stuff," says Tyson. "Better than sitting in a classroom," laughs Trevor. 

A student works the espresso machine.

Trevor is the coffee shop manager. His comment is what you’d expect from any typical high school student: making coffee is better than sitting in class. But not just for these kids. 

Special Education teacher Amy Heuston started this coffee shop this year to give her students the sort of hands on experience they just can’t get in class.  Her students have cognitive and physical impairments including Autism or brain injuries, but they work on all aspects of this coffee shop from purchasing the materials to doing the books.

“They take our money and then balance our till. We go shopping in class. They have to estimate how much our milk is going to cost every week," says Heuston. "And, just practicing purchasing is something that is very difficult.  You know if they have a five, a ten, and a twenty and it costs $11.64, they don’t know what to do. So it’s really nice to be able to practice.”

Heuston’s job as a teacher focuses on employability and math skills. She says this coffee shop accomplishes both those goals. Kathy Wire is a fellow special education teacher at Central alongside Heuston. Wire’s students work in the school bakery making treats like muffins and scones that sell in this shop.  

“At this point in our students' education, they’re finished with middle school. They are up in high school, and we’re looking forward to when they graduate from our program at age 21. We want them to have some very useful skills,” says Wire.

These students are not just picking up business skills; their social skills are also blossoming.

“Last year when we didn’t have this, I wanted to show them how to introduce themselves to people. So we took a class and went around school and introduced ourselves to people, which is great. But then they forgot it," says Heuston. "So a lot of these students need practice, they need practice every single day. And here is the opportunity."

“Nice to meet you," says Blake. 
“The pleasure is mine,” I reply.  
“A pleasure,” responds Blake emphatically. 

Take this young man.  He worked last semester in this coffee shop and, as a student, you can see he loves it here. 

“My title was Barista,” says Blake. 
“Barista Blake,” says Heuston. 
“Barista Blake,” responds Blake. 
“Am I going to be on the radio?” he asks.

Heuston says she got the idea for this coffee shop from a teacher in Canton.  She then landed the espresso machines and equipment in this shop with a grant from the South Dakota State Education Department.  That seed money launched this business. Heuston notes that, for these students to practice real world buying skills, they need real world money. But before this coffee shop, there was no budget to show students how to go to a store and buy something they might need. Now she says that’s changed, because this coffee shop is turning a profit. 

“ You know a lot of student in my class are in need,  they need to get pants or whatever, so it’s not an issue we can just go out and get it,” says Heuston.

In the end a successful business is all about the product. The teachers and staff at Central say these students make a great cup of coffee.

“I come every morning. If I’m not here they wonder where I am,” laughs Stacey Rosdahl. 

“The coffee is superb.  It’s as good as anything that you find going out and spending four or five dollars for,” says Michael Slaback.

“It’s delivered to me straight to my desk, and it’s one thing I don’t have to think about,” says Mandy Hennies. 

“I love having the coffee shop here,” adds Stacey Rosdahl.

Heuston notes that this coffee shop holds a deeper value for this school than just good coffee.  She says it opens the door for everyone to celebrate diversity.  

“Like for instance a regular in an English class,  my students, they wouldn’t get to go to that class.   But, they do every day here because they are delivering coffee to that person.  So that person is getting to know about students with cognitive impairments, with autism, with traumatic brain injury that they never would have had the opportunity to experience,” says Heuston. 

Students in the program not only run the coffee shop, they also make art for display and sale on the shop walls.

Back at the coffee shop baristas Trevor and Tyson are finishing up the last orders of the day. Heuston notes that a major teaching publication just picked up a story on the “Wake Up Central” coffee shop. She’s received inquiries from teachers as far away as Qatar who to start shops of their own. So it's possible more high schools could see coffee shops pop up in the future. This is good news  - not just for these students, but for teachers like Michael Slaback. 

“Coffee is one of those things that if you didn’t have it the world simply wouldn’t work well,” says Slaback. 

It’s seems this little student-run coffee shop proves it’s not only the world that works better with coffee but the Central High School Special Education program as well.