Faculty and staff members are being treated to a more upscale lunch two days a week at Freedom High School’s new Bistro Cafe.
One of the Woodbridge school’s special education classrooms is transformed with dimmed lighting, flameless candles, tablecloths and Italian music. Six to eight students with autism or intellectual disabilities prepare and serve the meal.
Marilyn Austin, the special education department chairman for autism and intellectual disabilities, came up with the idea in the summer.
The students have been running a coffee cart with drinks and pastries in the morning for about five years, Austin said. This year, they added the lunch bistro, which includes a salad bar, homemade soup, bread with an olive oil dipping sauce, bottled water and dessert. Teachers make a reservation and pay $5 for the lunch. The students are also making walking tacos Tuesdays and Wednesdays for kids who stay after school for activities. The line often snakes out the door of the classroom and down the hall, Austin said.
“I think the social interaction alone has made them so different,” Austin said. “They learn the building; they’re not sequestered in a little space all day. They get out. . . . I just love this, and so do they.”
Teachers said they like the opportunity to eat a healthy homemade lunch in a relaxed atmosphere. The bistro also benefits the students, who are learning life and social skills, special education teacher Bernice Blankenship said.
“I definitely have seen an increase in their confidence as they go through the school and interact with the other teachers,” Blankenship said. “They see them as customers now, so they really take some pride in that.”
The students prepare the meal, take reservations, run the cash register and clean up after lunch — all skills that might help them get a job, said Janelle Grimm, another special education teacher involved in the program.
“They’re not 10 years old,” she said. “These kids are within three or four short years of graduating. They’re going to be their parents’ responsibility for the rest of their life unless they can get some job skills.”
Next month, the students will begin doing the shopping for the bistro, Blankenship said. They will take a bus to Sam’s Club each Monday to buy the food.
They fill out time cards and earn “bistro bucks” that they can spend in a “store” the teachers set up for them in the classroom once a month. Blankenship said it’s been great to watch the students, some of whom are reluctant workers at times, make the connection between what they’ve done and being able to spend their earnings for things they want.
Austin wants to expand the program in the spring to include a food truck in the school parking lot. The truck — a rehabbed school bus — would serve workers from a construction site across the street from Freedom.
Austin, who is working on getting final approval for the food truck, estimates that profits could be $500 to $750 a week. That money would go back into the school to buy supplies and equipment and cover the costs of the program, she said.
“Ms. Austin has a vision way beyond Freedom High School for the students, and it gives them that vision, too, because the students are sharing in her excitement,” Blankenship said. “They’re learning how to make a bowl of soup for themselves and not expect somebody else to do that.”