Some days between 1:45 and 2:15 in the afternoon, the Hillcrest Academy school store is bustling, filled with students eager to spend their HA bucks on snacks and toys, as well as staff looking to buy seltzer water. Other days, it’s quieter with just a few classrooms of students trickling in. Regardless, The Birds Nest “employees” are learning vital prevocational skills that will serve them long after they graduate Hillcrest.
Prevocational skills, as Hillcrest Academy’s Program Director, Allison Billard, puts it are, “very, very basic job skills. [T]hey’re learning that you have to show up on time. If you have a scheduled shift, you can’t just say I don’t feel like going today. The soft skills related to working is where we have to start with all of our kids. Knowing who your boss is, knowing how to dress. They all have time cards. So they know if they want to get paid, they have to fill out their time card. And then they do some self-reflection.”
The Birds Nest “employees” 14 years and older receive a daily stipend for their work. “Staff members” under the age of 14 receive HA bucks, Hillcrest Academy’s currency otherwise earned through participation in the classroom as a part of the Positive Behavior Intervention System.
And it’s not just the “paycheck” that mimics the real world. Allison says everyone who works for The Birds Nest went through an application and interview process. “They have to sit down and have a job interview. Nothing is just given to them. Even all of our current school store ’employees’ had to fill out job applications to be interviewed, just like you would for a real job,” Allison says.
In addition to those prevocational soft skills, Birds Nest “employees” are also learning customer service skills, how to handle a cash register, and how every company or organization has a hierarchy. The Birds Nest currently “employs” seven students. Job titles include school store manager, greeters, baggers, cashiers, and general sales associates.
As Allison puts it, students don’t get to just come in and be a cashier. “They have to start as either a greeter or sales associate, and work their way up to the bagger, to the cashier.”
Outside of store hours, The Birds Nest team tallies up their profits, considers customer requests, creates a game plan, and hits the stores in search of the best prices. Once at the store, the team effort continues as they figure out if they can afford their purchases.
Allison and her team are eager to make this as much of a learning experience as possible for students. While a huge influx of students at 1:45 can feel stressful for school store “employees,” Allison and Russell Hyde, the Assistant Program Director, recognize the opportunity to mimic the real world.
“The cashiers and the school store staff get anxious…but we really want to model what a real-life experience is. So if you’re working at McDonald’s and a bus pulls up and you have 50 people waiting in line for French fries, THAT’S the reality,” she says.
Going forward, Allison envisions how The Birds Nest will continue to grow. She’s open to co-running the store with Hillcrest’s ASD Residential Program.
She also has plans in place for the students to print t-shirts, greetings cards, and even make homemade dog treats to sell to Hillcrest staff.
In the meantime, The Birds Nest staff are working on a PowerPoint presentation to present to Hillcrest Senior Management about school store advertising, creating coupons, and offering a 10% discount to Hillcrest’s Administrative Office staff.
The opportunities to grow The Birds Nest into a thriving school program are endless, but the goal will always be the same: to provide prevocational skills and job experience to Hillcrest Academy’s students.
Hillcrest Academy, Hillcrest Educational Center’s therapeutic day school, serves students with autism, social-emotional issues, and behavioral difficulties. The school store is one of the many ways Hillcrest strives to set them up for success as they prepare to enter the adult world.