JACKSON TWP — Avi Rao smiled as he waited next to the cash register.
As a fellow Seneca Valley student approached the newly opened Seneca Square smoothie and beverage shop in the Intermediate High School, he sprang into action. He took her paper order and calculated the total. He pinned the paper on a board notifying his classmates of a new order, pressed a few buttons and gave the student back her change.
The smile stayed on his face the whole time.
It's those interactions that district officials hope will become more frequent with the opening of the shop, which officially happened last week. The shop is operated by district special education students, and serves strawberry-banana, mango-pineapple, green watermelon and blue raspberry smoothies, as well as other beverages and snacks. It operates daily from 8 to 11 a.m.
According to Edward Sipp, transition specialist for the district, administrators began discussing the possibility of opening the drink kiosk after seeing the success of a kiosk selling Seneca Valley merchandise, which opened earlier this year and Raider Roast, a coffee shop that opened in 2017.
Jessica Pyle, coordinator of transition planning, career and vocational education, said a student advisory committee and a student survey asked what items they would like to see at the shop. She said all items are healthy choice options, and do not contain caffeine.
As they considered those options, Sipp said officials also looked at how to expand on skills students were learning at Raider Roast. There, students work for one period.
However, he said in speaking to human resources representatives, the shortest normal shift for job after leaving school would be four hours, prompting officials to create longer shifts at Seneca Square to allow students to build stamina.
“Trying to get the kids to handle that ... is the focus here,” he said.
Students work the first three periods of the day — about three hours — and are supervised by a rotation of five job coaches, Pyle said.
“It gives the students the opportunity to get used to different types of bosses,” she said.
It also exposes students to different tasks at a job. Students are responsible for taking orders, collecting money, counting change, preparing drinks and serving customers. Sipp said the work doesn't stop after that three-hour window, as students also clean the area, track inventory and prep the area for the next morning.
The program also serves to build a stronger school community. Pyle said it expands upon groundwork laid by programs like Best Buddies, which pair special needs students with general population students and promotes interaction.
“That interaction is really nice, that students get to have the sense of pride to be working and helping out the rest of the student body,” she said.
Both Sipp and Pyle said students have taken a lot of pride in their work, taking photos of the workspace and beaming with pride as they serve their fellow students.
“This is something else to bring into the school that makes the day better for the entire school population,” Sipp said.
As for Avi, he said he enjoys taking orders and interacting with students, as well as working alongside his co-workers each day. None of those, though, are his favorite.
“I like being the cashier,” he said with a beaming smile.