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School store teaches special needs kids life lessons
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From left, Lexie Palermo, 18, of Palm Harbor; Logan Barham, 19, of Clearwater; and Mike Towers of Clearwater who turned 18 that day all pose at the Swanky Swine school store.
CLEARWATER – When Jennifer Tollefson began meeting with her special needs students at Woodlawn Community Academy in Clearwater, many struggled with basic mathematical concepts, such as counting money, even though most were juniors and seniors in high school. But now, through her teaching and launching a student store that her kids run, her students are not only much better at their math skills, they also are learning many life skills that will help them in the “real world” after they graduate.

Tollefson of Largo is the director of transition services at Woodlawn Community Academy, and this fall she founded the Swanky Swine school store where about 10 special needs students work during lunchtime on Wednesdays and Fridays.

“We thought it would be good for them to get some practical experience, so we started a school store,” Tollefson said. “It’s our first step in a transition program, which is where we take our high schoolers and start switching from basic math and reading to more practical skills. We’re still doing math and reading, but we’re reading menus and doing money math and paying bills and writing checks and things like that.”

Tollefson said she basically started from scratch, with recognizing coins then eventually counting quarters and other change. Then, the students were able to practice those skills in the store.

“There, the students are exposed to it,” Tollefson said. “They’re not going to grasp it completely, but we do inventory before every shift, we do inventory after the shift, and then they do subtraction to figure out how many we sold, and we talk about profit and loss. And it’s more concepts to expose them to at this point, but I think it’s important that they at least understand that a store can’t give things away for free.”

The biggest goal Tollefson has for the store is that it helps prepare her students for employment and life after high school. Special education students can remain in high school until they are 22, but after that, they’re on their own. They can earn special diplomas, but they aren’t necessarily going to pass the FCATs due to their learning challenges, she said. Some have Downs syndrome, others have autism and others have general learning disabilities, among other things. There is a wide variety of skill levels, but hopefully they all will learn things they can take with them in life.

“We want to teach them skills like they have to wear a uniform to work, they have to be on time, working without complaining, standing on your feet for a while. That’s a big part of it, just building stamina for work,” Tollefson said. “Things a lot of us don’t think about. When we first started, for them to work an hour was a big deal. So we slowly expand their times. We used to do two shifts during a lunch, which is an hour and a half, and now we’re trying to slowly build those skills.”

Another big thing working in the store does is to help teach basic people and social skills, she said, including customer service. Even knowing when it is and is not appropriate to share things is a big accomplishment for some of the students.

Woodlawn is a school of about 100 students, and about 75 percent of them are special needs students, Tollefson said. So an added benefit of the Swanky Swine store is that it also teaches the other kids how to shop. Non-special needs students work as student managers to help supervise and assist – which is helpful because some awkward situations can arise.

“It’s kind of funny sometimes – if you have someone who’s not used to working in a store and someone who’s not used to shopping in a store, you can be surprised by some of the situations,” Tollefson said. “We had one time when after a shift we just found $2 sitting under one of the pigs. And then, we have a little kid, he’s pretty much non-verbal – he’s in kindergarten and has Downs syndrome – he’ll pass out one coin to each person and then they all have to put it together and figure it out. It’s pretty funny. But that’s why we have the student managers.”

They started with just $100 to start the store, which they have since paid back to the school, and from there, they have been self-funded. They’ve made a profit from the store, and they also have ended up selling T-shirts, because the uniforms have gotten a lot of attention. But then, what else could one expect from a shirt with a piggy bank with a handlebar moustache wearing a monocle?

The pigs and shirts have taken on a life of their own, Tollefson said. It all started in her Money Math class, where she gave all of the kids little piggybanks with their names on them to help them learn more about counting change. She envisioned the little pigs would sit on a shelf somewhere when they weren’t being used, but the kids fell in love with them and begged her to let them keep them on their desks. Therefore, when she was trying to think of a name for the school store, she knew it had to have something to do with pigs. To finish out with the name, she went with alliteration. However, it was a few months before she realized some of the kids didn’t know what the name meant.

“At first I didn’t realize that a lot of the kids didn’t realize what swanky swine was, and I thought I’d explained it, and somebody came in and did a story on us and I said something about swanky swine and realized that some of them didn’t know what it meant,” Tollefson said. “So I said, swanky means fancy, and swine means pig, and one of the kids said, ‘Fancy pig, that would be a great name!’ And I was like, well that’s what it means.”

Through this project, Tollefson has been amazed by how much the students have learned and how far they have come, and in so many ways.

“Counting coins, opening the store, responsibility – I put out a schedule and they have to check it to know when they work. I don’t go around and say ‘Don’t forget that you’re working tomorrow.’ I did at first, but I don’t do that anymore. So it teaches them responsibility. It’s been really amazing. Even the money counting. Some of them couldn’t do it at all. …One of our students, he’s never been able to grasp the concept of money, but now that he’s doing it in a practical environment, (it clicks.) I think it’s because it’s no longer theoretical. It’s not just on a worksheet. He’s actually working with it.”

Social skills improvements have also been huge, she said. They have a script for what they are supposed to say when a customer comes in, they’re working on always saying thank you and making eye contact, washing their hands and even just following step-by-step directions. At first, sometimes a special needs customer would walk up to the counter and the customer and cashier would just stare at each other because they didn’t know how to properly interact or converse, Tollefson said. Now, however, her Swanky Swine students know that it is their job to lead the conversation. They also now can pretty much set up the store all by themselves, she said.

“To see where they’ve come from in the beginning of the year until now has been really amazing to me and a lot of people at the school,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of kids come here for years and for whatever reason couldn’t grasp the counting money thing. But making it real has made a huge difference. That and the confidence building – that’s a great thing too in preparing them for real life. When I first explained all this to them, they didn’t think they could do any of it. They couldn’t dream of ringing up things on a cash register and things like that just overwhelmed them. But now they love it, and they take a lot of pride in it. They really see it as important. To them, it’s their first job and they take it that seriously. We have some who I never would have anticipated have leadership skills but really do.”

Logan Barham, 19, of Clearwater said he enjoys working in the store, especially working as a cashier. He said it helps to teach him math, such as how to add.

“I learned how to do my math better,” Barham said. “(Before,) math wasn’t that good. Like adding and subtracting and stuff were hard.”

Barham said the store has helped him learn math better, and he enjoys using the iPad to ring up customers.

“My favorite part is probably talking to all of the customers,” Barham said, while the hardest part is learning all of the prices.

Lexie Palermo, 18, of Palm Harbor has Downs syndrome and loves working in the store, too.

“I love working at Swanky Swine,” Palermo said. “I like the store and I like my math teacher, she’s really nice”

Palermo said she enjoys socializing with the other kids while at the store and learning helpful skills.

“I’m learning how to be responsible and also math,” Palermo said.

She realizes the value of these skills because she has an older brother in college, and she knows that he needs to be able to buy things at the store by himself. Working in the store therefore helps her gain these skills, too, and overcome some of her challenges.

“I have some challenges things in my body because I have Downs syndrome so I have a hard time, like some things that are challenging are speaking and talking,” Palermo said. “…Sometimes I don’t know what to say or what to do. So I learn that kind of better.”

Another student, Dimitri Tyner, 16, also said he enjoys his time working at the school store.

“It’s the best (working at the store,)” Tyner said, “and she is a good teacher. (I like) doing the change and seeing customers being happy.”

Before working in the store, he said that money math was hard, especially doing it in his head, but now it’s easier. He, too, loves working with the iPads and being cashier, even though sometimes it can be hectic.

“(The hardest part is) the customers are always coming up to us and handing us money. It makes me stressed out,” Tyner said.

An eventual goal, Tollefson said, is to turn the school store into a small business where students can work even after they graduate. She hopes to be able to afford renting some commercial kitchen space so they can run a catering business. It would be huge to be able to offer these students work opportunities beyond graduation, she said.

For more information, visit www.s­wanky­swine­.com.
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