Special Ed Teacher’s Job Program Empowers Students, Changes Minds, Melts Hearts

The San Francisco teacher wants the entire school to see just how much her students have to offer.
Nov 1, 2015·
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Teachers know there’s more to a well-rounded education than scoring high on standardized tests or getting an A on an English paper. For special education teacher Sadie Guthrie, practical job skills are high on the list of priorities for her young students.

“I’m trying to think long range,” said Guthrie in the first video installment of SoulPancake’s “Class Act” series about inspiring teachers in California. “Where are these kids going, like high school and beyond—the rest of their life?”

That’s why Guthrie started Coffee Cart, in which her students operate like café workers around the school. The mobile shop allows the students, who are ordinarily isolated from the rest of the kids at San Francisco’s Lawton Alternative School, to interact with the rest of the student body while supplying teachers with their afternoon caffeine or sugar fix.

Coffee Cart also takes the kids out of the school entirely. They learn how to navigate the city’s transportation system and interact with local business owners when they venture out to pick up pastry donations. Each child has a role, such as barista or cashier. This work experience could prove helpful for the students down the line, as adults with disabilities face higher rates of unemployment than those without disabilities.

While the students are learning practical skills, they’re also molding their peers’ perception of them.

“My students are getting out of the classroom and they’re seen as being very productive, contributing members of our school,” Guthrie said.

Integrating differently abled children into the rest of the community is key to creating equal treatment, according to advocates. People who interact with a person with an intellectual disability are twice as likely to view them positively, according to a July survey.

“I see so much in them and in kids with disabilities in general,” said Guthrie. “Even if you face challenges, those challenges aren’t necessarily the important part. It’s more like, what are the skills that you do have that you’re going to use to move forward?”