ILLINOIS – Every weekday from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. when Edwardsville High School (EHS) is in session, students congregate near Tiger Den, once a concession stand and now a cafe, to get their caffeine and breakfast fix.
Instead of being greeted at the counter by a cafeteria employee, customers are welcomed by a team of students with intellectual disabilities and autism who are learning independent life skills while helping the average high school student with their food and beverage order.
All of the student employees are part of the Functional Life Skills program directed by Susan Converse, who specializes in teaching special education. She created the curriculum that the department and program practice. Her program encourages her students to become active members in their communities by building life skills.
Converse created Tiger Den in September of the 2016-17 academic school-year with a push-cart selling chocolate chip cookies to study hall students to support the FLS program and teaching a limited skill set pertaining to the service industry.
“We were doing everything to sell cookies,” Converse said. “That is really all it was supposed to be. It was just something else for the kids to be practicing as far as communication and money skills.”
She quickly learned her initiative had great potential after the sole product continued to sell-out. Converse shared the logistics and constraints of the “then versus now” operation.
“We had $24 in our account, three Mr. Coffee coffee pots, and chocolate chip cookies that we baked in what looks like an EasyBake oven,” Converse explained. “From there we have exploded into a program that offers 38 different food and drink items. We have a very healthy bank account while spending thousands of dollars a week from wholesale suppliers.”
Tiger Den benefits hungry students and staff and allows the FLS program to grow exponentially. One example of growth is paying an employee to help an FLS student adapt to a different work environment separate from Tiger Den.
“We now have a job coach,” Converse said. “This person goes with one of the students to their job site for about three weeks, and they monitor and offer guidance.”
A second example of growth is paying college students to work at Tiger Den. Morgan Swanner is one of three Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville students who graduated from EHS. All three college students have returned to their alma mater to help the FLS program thrive.
“Being here for three years, I started off volunteering, and Converse showed me how to do things,” said Swanner,” and I have been working here ever since.”
One neat aspect of the Tiger Den is that employees complete different tasks categorized into two groups – kitchen prep and consumer services.
“I divide my students into two groups,” Converse said. “Half stay in the classroom prepping, and the other half are up in the Tiger Den. I do switch the majority of them out so they get the opportunity to do both the prep work and the consumer service.”
Converse has a mission to continue improving her students’ skills. She demonstrates this by always introducing her students to new tasks. However, due to levels of limitations and comfortability, some students have identified the station(s) they prefer.
“I look at my responsibility as giving them the skills of course, most importantly, but also setting them on a course with a job they love,” Converse added. “By all of these different tasks the students do, I have seen talents emerge that I didn’t know were there and that don’t necessarily come out in the classroom.”
Converse and Swanner gave examples of student performances. One student who began working in the Tiger Den showed the skill of organization. Converse moved him from the Tiger Den to the public library, ultimately setting him up for future jobs relating to his organizing skills.
“You are giving kids the opportunity to find a job that they love, and it will set them up on a path of happiness,” Swanner added. “Converse gives students the ability to move past their disability.”
The public library is not the only employer seeking skilled students. Converse has students employed in a variety of different fields – food services, fitness, retirement centers and daycares.
Converse was the recipient of the 2019 Illinois Teacher of the Year award presented by the Illinois State Board of Education. Her success did not go unnoticed.
“It was a complete shock that I was even nominated, but to win, I was just stunned and unprepared,” Converse said. “I thank my students because they are the reason I received that award. It was certainly an honor.”
The award has allowed Converse to promote the FLS program and the need for more initiatives similar to the Tiger Den. Converse was invited to the White House to be recognized for her dedication and efforts by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. She was later honored in New Orleans at the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.