As the first bus of the morning arrives at Moorestown High School, the sun is still rising. The first batch of students to shuffle into the building head straight to where they know the coffee is already on, somewhere they can socialize over a hot cup and get their morning started on the right foot. Common Grounds is the school’s on-site coffee shop and lounge, fully staffed by students in the Vocational Transition Program and open to students and faculty alike.
The coffee shop is just one building-based enterprise staffed by students in the program, which includes the school store and a second-hand clothing store that utilizes e-commerce marketplace Poshmark. Each venture aims to equip its student staff with the vocational and social skills they will need in the job world outside of school.
According to Job Developer Margie Bard, who runs the Vocational Transition Program, Common Grounds started as more of a teacher’s lounge, before it was opened up to students last November. Its menu expanded from just coffee to include iced coffee and tea, snacks and microwaveable pancakes, waffles and breakfast sandwiches.
Stepping into the small shop, one almost forgets they are inside of a school. Student artwork adorns the walls, lounge seating and charging stations encourage social interaction and gentle music adds a final touch of atmosphere.
In its first year of operation, Bard says she has seen the coffee shop crowd grow and bring students together that may have never interacted otherwise.
“We had one group of kids always coming in and now that group is changing, it’s morphing and other kids are coming in and socializing,” Bard said.
This social aspect is even more important for the Vocational Transition Program students running the shop, some of whom Bard has seen interacting with fellow students for the first time and really coming out of their shells through these school-based work assignments. Building these soft skills, Bard says, is one of the main drives of the program.
“The goal is to push kids out of their comfort zone. We all have an area we’re comfortable in and we’re not going to grow unless we’re pushed. We do that, but we do it in a controlled, nurturing, educational spectrum,” Bard said. “We want them, when they leave us, to have employable skills.”
Students who qualify for the program split their time between these school shops and jobs they have been placed in throughout the community, usually with the assistance of a job coach. The Vocational Transition Program currently has students in place in local franchises like Wawa, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds and TJ Maxx.
They have also partnered with local businesses and organizations who have odd jobs their students are perfectly suited for. The Bow Wow Bakery came about through a partnership with the Moorestown Recreation Community Kitchen. On visits to the community kitchen, students learn kitchen skills and bake dog treats that are sold at Common Grounds. The program also partners with Johnson’s Farm each year come spring and assembles their Easter goodie bags.
“What I would love is for people in our local community to think of us when they have a job to do,” Bard said.
She would like to encourage local businesses to reach out to them for more partnerships like these. For inquiries of this nature, Bard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First thing in the morning, Common Grounds is staffed by two seniors: 18-year-old Ricardo Teixeira Filho and 17-year-old Marisa Cini.
Teixeira Filho feels like he gets much more out of the program than simply learning customer service and how to work a register.
“I feel like I’ve been more social with a lot of people,” Teixeira Filho said of a personal goal of his. Through the program he has found other students are a lot friendlier than he previously thought.
Cini is in charge of the money, and often works the register. She has had to rely on her impressive mental math skills, as the register only serves to house cash and doesn’t calculate change.
“Sometimes if I’m having a rough day and need help I’ll ask, but other than that I’m doing it on my own,” Cini said.
She currently splits her time between the coffee shop and her outside job placement at a nearby McDonalds. If you ask her which job she prefers, she’ll tell you in no uncertain terms.
“Everyone knows that answer, Common Grounds,” Cini said. “I love this job.”
You can follow the vocational program’s Instagram account @msh.sle to find out more about students like Teixeira Filho and Cini as they reach their workplace goals. There is also an account for Common Grounds where you can see what all the buzz is about @mhscommongrounds.