Students with multiple disabilities got a handle on solving problems and gained some job experience – all while working to achieve curricular goals from New Jersey’s Career Readiness, Life Skills and Key Skills Standards at Hamilton Township School District in Mercer County.

The district was honored as a recognized program in the 2022 School Leader awards for its “Learning Life and Career Skills in the Gladiator Café” program, which is headed by Marta Audino, director of student services and programs.

The goal of the program, which has served about 160 students over a seven-year period, is to provide students identified with multiple disabilities with life and career skills by operating an in-school cafe.

In 2015, Susan Conrad, who was at that time an eighth-grade special education teacher with the district, decided her students could best learn skills aligning with the state standards by running the café at Grice Middle School, which is named after the school’s gladiator mascot. Students quickly began learning the ins and outs of running a small business.

First located in a modular classroom, students made coffee and prepared hot water for tea and cocoa. They learned to measure, pour, set up and clean up.

As vendors, they honed financial skills, such as collecting money and making change. They also made deliveries to classroom teachers and eventually ran the café from a cart located near the school’s main entrance. 

In 2018, Conrad and her students landed in a spacious, former home economics classroom, complete with sinks, countertops and appliances. This classroom afforded students greater opportunities to refine skills for potential careers, as well as for learning to live independently. 

The café looked more professional in the new room, with student baristas wearing orange school T-shirts and black aprons. After work, thanks to a washer and dryer in the room, students could wash and fold their aprons and shirts after work. The café continued to serve bagels, donuts and hot beverages, but patrons were able to eat in, allowing family, friends and community members to support the café.”

With more space, sixth and seventh graders joined the operation, expanding an already diverse pool of student workers. The district noted in its application letter that one of the key objectives in its targeted educational standards is to “work productively in teams while using cultural/global competence.”

When the pandemic hit, the café closed for two years, and Conrad changed jobs. But special education teachers Marisa Naro and Marisa Erickson, who had worked alongside Conrad, were committed to reopening the café. Joined by teacher Noreen Gafgen and six educational assistants, they celebrated the grand reopening of a new and improved Gladiator Café on April 1, 2022.

“Returning patrons found their usual drinks, but the dining menu had been expanded,” according to the district’s application letter. “Using a Magic Bullet blender, students created smoothies, naming them after the school’s two houses – Pride and Spirit. The Gladiator Gut Buster, a breakfast sandwich on an English muffin with egg and cheese, comes with a diner’s choice of bacon or pork roll, which students fry on a griddle. The change in meal variety meant orders became more complicated, requiring students to work on memorization skills. Collecting payments and making change became more challenging.”

The students had a tip cup and donated 50% of what they received to a Grice student fighting leukemia. This gesture helped students meet the curricular standard that reads “individuals can use their talents, resources and abilities to give back.” 

At an October 2022 ceremony honoring the café with the School Leader recognition, Superintendent Dr. Scott Rocco called it a “wonderful program,” according to TapInto Hamilton, an online neighborhood website. He said, “Attending the Gladiator Café is a highlight for me on Fridays as I love to see our students engaging with the faculty, staff and guests.” He added, “The café and our students and staff who run it were award winning prior to the recognition. This award just reaffirmed what those of us who attend the café already knew. Congratulations to our Gladiator Café students and staff.”

For seven years, the Gladiator Cafe has met the mission of New Jersey’s Career Readiness, Life Skills and Key Skills standards for middle school students with multiple disabilities. Those students have graduated understanding “the obligations and responsibilities of being a member of a community, and … demonstrate this understanding every day through their interactions with others.” 

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor