Provided by Prince William County Schools (PWCS)
Students with “exceptionalities,” multiple talents and skills, are thriving from their experience in Freedom High School’s Bistro & Bakery, a mini-restaurant within the school that is a vocational training component of the special education program. Managed and staffed by the students, the Bistro serves four lunches a day to teachers three days a week, and feeds school sports teams on Fridays after school. School Board Vice Chairman Lillie Jessie and more than 70 parents and staff filled the Bistro for a holiday lunch on Dec. 14. Decorated tables, soft lights, and music created a welcoming ambiance.
Parents Julia and Magnus Ellerts are enthusiastic about the Bistro and the special education program at Freedom. “I have never been more impressed by a school or program,” Julia Ellerts said. “It’s a positive environment with a positive staff. I am so grateful my daughter has a chance to be here. This experience has brought her confidence, ability to communicate, social skills, and she is now equipped to go out into the world. This is making the world a better place.”
Students with wide-ranging abilities play a role in the Bistro, according to Marilyn Austin, chair of the program for specialized instruction that serves 125 of the school’s 300-plus special education population. Students may spend from one to three class periods in the Bistro or are involved with an activity related to it. Some prepare food for the salad bar, bus tables, take orders, and fill other jobs common in the restaurant business while gaining skills for independent living.
“Customers are nice and friendly and call us by our names,” said Bistro Head Chef Dilia Ortez, a junior. “It’s a lot of work; you have to know all that is on the menu and train the staff, and sometimes train the teachers about things in the Bistro,” she said.
Program participants have learned to be savvy and confident shoppers, and much more. They put their heads together to create menus, compare ads, and make lists of what they need. Others polish their management, marketing, and computer skills by training and mentoring students, researching recipes, and creating menus. All learn how to improve their communication skills, vital for any workplace. Local businesses employ graduates of the special education program, including Giant, Bob Evans, ACE Hardware, and Silver Diner.
The Bistro operated for three years in a vocational classroom, closed last May for renovation, and re-opened two months ago. The makeover included adding a commercial kitchen with three sinks minus a fryer. All staff who work with students in the Bistro are ServSafe Certified, required for a school-run kitchen.
The Bistro is more than a place where students practice what they learn in a real-life setting. It is also a world where students are confident and respected, and thrive with the support of Freedom High School’s entire staff and leadership. You can tell from the smiles on the students’ faces and the camaraderie.