Deer Lakes

School District

High School Coffee Shop offers new opportunities for students with and without disabilities

A newly opened, student-run coffee shop at Deer Lakes High School is giving its baristas a taste of what it is like to run a business and patrons a flavor they can savor.

“I never imagined something like this would be a part of my high school schedule,” Deer Lakes senior Jack Zawalnicki said. “It’s definitely been one of the highlights of my senior year.”

The Coffee Shop, a franchisee of Coffee Tree Roasters, recently opened to the delight of students and staff who enjoy caffeine to start their school day. Students who are in a study hall and staff may place orders during the first four periods of the school day for pickup or delivery.

It has proven to be a valuable recipe for learning hands-on and soft skills for students in the elective peer-to-peer mentoring class.

“It has been so encouraging to see students buy into this concept,” Lindsay McGaughey, Deer Lakes Director of Special Education, said. “The coffee shop builds community and so many new connections among students and staff. Students love the space and are especially excited that it operates similar to brand name shops.”

How It Happened

The origin of The Coffee Shop can be traced back to 2022 when the Deer Lakes Special Education Department was awarded a $20,000 Pennsylvania Department of Education grant to support opportunities that would encourage students to enter the field of special education. 

The proposal made to PDE was to create a coffee shop operated by students with and without disabilities after Deer Lakes staff toured several coffee shops, including another school district’s shop and the Coffee Tree Roasters warehouse.

Coffee Tree Roasters, a Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation approved provider, has been a locally owned business for 30 years, one of the many reasons Deer Lakes staff was interested in a partnership.

The Coffee Tree Roasters business model includes partnering with ethical farms, minimizing waste products, and offering a wide variety of services. They also supplied equipment, a menu, recipes, and training to students.

Several Deer Lakes High School classes also contributed to the branding of The Coffee Shop.
The Woodshop and Visual Communication classes collaborated to create signage. Art classes strategically plan chalkboard art and decorations. The TV Production class is producing a commercial.

“It’s the perfect fit for everyone,” Deer Lakes Principal Ryan Aleski said. “We rolled this out slowly to make sure everything ran smoothly, and I cannot say enough good things about the students and staff involved in making this an enjoyable and beneficial experience for everyone on our campus.”

How It Works

Students in regular education classes had the opportunity to select the elective peer-to-peer mentoring class that runs The Coffee Shop.
The decision to join the class was easy for Deer Lakes senior Noah Condle who also participates in Best Buddies and Unified Bocce. He is currently enlisted in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard and may pursue a career working with children who have developmental disabilities.

“I love coffee and I love peer-to-peer mentoring so this was an opportunity to combine both together,” Noah said. “I love doing things like this because you get to build relationships with everyone. It’s nice to be able to hold a casual conversation with anyone in school.”

Students like Noah are the peer mentors to students with disabilities, including autism and intellectual disabilities.

“The coffee shop has allowed students who did not previously know each other to work together and learn how to communicate and collaborate,” Lindsay McGaughey said. “This has raised additional awareness of disabilities for students who are peer mentors and students who are patrons of the shop.”

Students with and without disabilities in the class received training from the staff of Coffee Tree Roasters on how to use the equipment and make original CTR recipes, including seasonal specials. Drinks that are sold include a variety of teas, lattes, coffees, mochas, smoothies, and iced coffees.

They make 40-50 drinks per day and also sell gift cards.

“It’s great watching our special education students grow in their independence when they’re given responsibilities,” Noah said. “They are also making so many new connections across the building as well.”

This work-based learning experience is especially valuable as it provides opportunities for students with IEP transition employment goals to be assessed in a real-life situation, develop job readiness and vocational skills, and strengthen communication, functional reading and math skills in an inclusive setting.

“I’m so thankful for everyone who made The Coffee Shop possible,” Lindsay McGaughey said. “It’s beyond worth it when you think about how this will help so many students from career readiness to forming new friendships and bonds. There has been something special about watching our students flourish so quickly in this new environment.”

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