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Aspire Program Builds Job Skills for Rankin County Students at The Spot Downtown

Two men in red vests smile to the camera
Every other school day, Puckett High School students Dayton Gousset (left) and Jerzias “Zi” Rogers (right) ride a bus to Brandon, Miss., coffee shop The Spot Downtown, where they serve customers as part of an employment-training lab. Photo by Angela Evans

Puckett High School student Jerzias “Zi” Rogers eagerly filled a cup with ice and sweet tea, gingerly put a lid on it, and carefully carried it to a table at The Spot Downtown, a new local coffee shop in Brandon, Miss. His classmate, Dayton Gousset, then rang up the customer at the cash register and double-checked to make sure the cash was correct and that his customer was satisfied with their experience.

While these activities may seem normal for coffee-shop employees, teacher Lana Sturgon says that this exchange demonstrates milestones for both teenagers, who are part of the special-education program at Puckett High School in Rankin County.

“It gets them out of the room, (and) it helps them be around other people, different experiences, different people,” Sturgon says. “They’re exposed to different personalities. They’re not exposed to the same things.”

More than just a coffee shop, The Spot Downtown is an interactive classroom and employment-training lab for students in the Rankin County School District Aspire Transition Program. The lab offers “community-based instruction and vocational skills training to high school students with disabilities to support transition to future employment and adult living through hands-on activities and meaningful, real-life experiences,” an informal flier describes.

Aspire students engage and learn in settings outside the classroom at affiliated sites throughout the RCSD and surrounding areas, with The Spot Downtown serving as the main training location.

The front of a building with brick bottom detail and white paint
The Spot Downtown is housed inside a historic building built in 1939, which has served many purposes before opening as a coffee shop and interactive classroom on March 21, 2022. Photo by Angela Evans

Every other day, Gousset and Rogers, both 18, leave their special-education classroom, board a school bus and ride to The Spot Downtown. The two boys spend part of their school days working in the shop. They take orders, prepare them in the back, serve customers, clean up and run the cash register with teacher supervision.

“I like doing the machines, and cleaning,”  Gousset says of the job.

“My favorite part is job skills,” Rogers says. “I do inventory and be a shop clerk.”

Learning Outside Traditional Classrooms

Students taking special-education classes in all Rankin County high schools come to The Spot Downtown every other school day. Summer Lewis, the teacher leading the Aspire program, creates a work schedule and assigns job duties for them that rotate each week so student workers gain a variety of experience.

“They love it—it gives them different things to do other than just sit and do academic stuff,” Sturgon, assistant SPED teacher at Puckett High School, says. “They get to do stuff they can use after school. We also try to work on social skills.” Sturgon drives Gousset and Rogers to the coffee shop for work herself.

“This is what it’s about, customer-service skills, new opportunities for students,” Lewis says.

A man in a red shirt works the cash register while a woman in a grey top pays
Dayton Gousset (pictured) handles a money exchange behind the register after taking a customer’s order. Photo by Angela Evans

Lewis has nurtured the program from its beginnings. She says the goal of the Aspire Program is for students to gain work skills they can use after high-school graduation so that they can learn to live independently as they move into adulthood.

“Just being more independent and not relying on others for every little thing—because a person with a disability, of course, they need help from others—but when you see them able to do these things, that’s awesome for me to see,”  Lewis remarks.

Gousset knows and proudly tells customers of the historic building’s history: “It was built in 1939 and was other things until now in 2022 when it is the coffee shop,” he explains.

The building, now part of the Rankin County School District, officially opened as the coffee shop for the Aspire program on March 21, 2022. The Spot Downtown’s menu includes hot and cold beverages and pre-packaged food items. The front of the building features Rankin County students’ artwork and pottery all available for purchase as well.

‘Blessings’ and Blooms

Student-worker interaction with customers plays an important part in the program’s success. Regular customer Ann Wentz of Brandon visits weekly. She says she has seen students grow from their first days in the shop to being able to obtain a job outside school, including at other restaurants or hospitality services in the area.

“It is fantastic. It thrills us to see them out in public working. It’s just a thrill you can’t imagine,” she says.

Wentz appreciates the student workers so much she has taken on more roles beyond that of customer. As the second vice president of the Brandon Garden Club, she helps the students with the landscaping outside the shop and the sidewalk entrance. The club provides some of the items and supplies as Wentz, and others teach the students how to plant and take care of the plants and flowers while maintaining a beautiful entrance.

An older woman in black points down at a brick lined flower bed
Brandon Garden Club Second Vice President Ann Wentz patronizes The Spot Downtown regularly and helps the students landscape the area outside the shop with flowers and plants, teaching them about gardening along the way. Photo by Angela Evans

“We wanted to work with the students to learn skills, and that’s what this is all about,” she excitedly says while pointing at the flowers. “I get a blessing. The kids get a blessing, but I get a greater blessing working with these kids,” she says.

Passionate about flowers and plants, Wentz takes great pride in describing her vision for a garden near the building. She knows students gain work experience inside the coffee shop but wants them to have experience outdoors, too, so that they can better decide what they want to do in the future.

“We’re trying to help them go into life excited for the future,” she adds.

The Spot Downtown is only open during the school year. It will close for the summer while the school district is out, but Lewis plans to keep it going next school year.

Preparing for the Future

More than just work experience, Lewis wants all the special-education students involved with the Aspire program to advance their social and interpersonal-communication skills and to develop strong work ethics they can implement in their lives after graduation. She wants all students to be prepared for success.

“We also talk about flexibility,” Lewis says, as Rogers and Gousset nod in agreement. “Some might have struggles with change. This will prepare them for whatever happens in life. We can’t always be regimented in the real work world. We have to adapt to change. We have to go with the flow.”

A man in a floral shirt and red vest pours unsweet tea into a disposable cup
Zi Rogers pours a cup of tea for a customer, one of his responsibilities while working at The Spot Downtown as part of the Rankin County School District Aspire Training Program. Photo by Angela Evans

“It feels like a real job,” Gousset says with a big smile on his face, pointing to his badge as evidence of his status as someone in the workforce.

While the two teens take great care making sure that customer orders are filled correctly, the money exchanges are accurate and the shop is clean, they believe this will lead them on a path for work in the future, they explain.

Lewis agrees. “We see growth in all kinds of ways, whether it is jumping up without being told every little thing to do or it might just be a communication skill,” she says. “I have seen the biggest growth in independence. They just tend to shine and take on new responsibilities.”

The Spot Downtown (223 Tamberline St., Brandon) is open to customers Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call 749-241-5177 or visit the coffee shop’s Facebook page.

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