Fairfax Elementary students run special store

Drew Fitzgerald, Major Lee Russell and Ja'Michael Dye (from left), at the Tiger Mart Express.

There’s a new store in town. It’s called the Tiger Mart Express, and, staring in February, Fairfax Elementary School students have been able to visit it in their lunchroom on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, to purchase school supplies. Here’s the thing that makes this shop special: it’s managed and run by students in special-needs classes, many of whom have multiple physical handicaps.

The primary curricular focus for Fairfax’s special education classrooms is “functional life skills.” The students learn how to communicate with others, how to navigate their neighborhoods, and how to perform basic tasks, such as handling money, and making and responding to requests.

The brainchild of speech language therapist Marilyn Gardner, the store enables students “to apply the skills learned in the classroom to a functional and real-life situation. Students will utilize math, reading, organizational and overall communication skills.”

The student workers are excited about the new opportunity. Ja’Michael Dye said, “I like the store because we get to sell stuff. It was hard to count the money, but I was excited to have a job.”

Third-grader Drew Fitzgerald, who communicates using an iPad, pointed to images of pennies, dimes and quarters, his enthusiasm obvious to all. With the help of his teacher, he typed out the words, “I help.”

The shop has been well received by other students, who eagerly purchase fancy pencils, notebooks, scissors and other items.

The Fairfax PTA served as an investor in the project, supplying the initial supplies and $8 worth of “seed money” to use in making change.

Leslie Kaplansky represented the Fairfax PTA in the initial planning meetings. She has long been responsible for stocking the PTA-run supply store and was excited to hand some of this task over to students. She frequently shops at Just-A-Buck in South Euclid, which hires adults with special needs and developmental disabilities. “How great would it be for our students to go there on a field trip to buy items for their very own store? Talk about coming full circle,” said Kaplansky.

Valerie Joseph, who teaches third- through fifth-grade special-education students, sees the store as an opportunity for her students to interact with their peers. “This gives them the chance to talk to each other, learn each other’s names and maybe even to work together, side-by-side, in the store.”

The ultimate goal is to pair special-education students with regular-education students to run the store, so the teachers can be less involved. “We want the kids to be in charge of every aspect,” said Joseph.

Fellow special education teacher Rochelle Snyder agrees, and noted, "Everything about our curriculum is hands-on. We are always trying to provide real-world scenarios for our students to increase their independence and this does just that.”

She appreciates that operating the store is an authentic, not role-playing, experience. “I always use real money in my classroom to remove one unnecessary step from the learning process,” she explained. 

Snyder also pointed out that interacting with other students serves to embed her students into the school culture. "We want them to be a true part of the student body,” she said, “not something ‘separate.’”

To engage the regular-education students, teachers organized a contest to name the new store. The final choice, Tiger Mart Express, combined several student suggestions.

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher

Krissy Dietrich Gallagher is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, a graduate of the Heights schools and a former Coventry Elementary School teacher. She is a freelance journalist under contract with the CH-UH City School District Communications Department. A version of this story appeared at www.chuh.org.

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Volume 9, Issue 6, Posted 4:36 PM, 05.31.2016