With job opportunities scarce for special ed students, the district has set up its own shop to offer teens a chance to work.
Like elves in Santa's workshop, students at BizWorld in Oak Grove have been working extra hard to fill holiday orders.
BizWorld is the two-year-old brainchild of Judi Schmitt, work coordinator for the St. Francis School District's Transition 15 adult special education program. Part of the curriculum for the students is to learn work and pre-vocational skills, and as the economy was tanking, Schmitt had a harder time finding businesses where students could land unpaid or low-paying positions. BizWorld, a curriculum that's also a business, was the result.
When BizWorld first got going, the students made no-sew fleece blankets and sold them. Then last year, they set up a retail store where the public could buy customized gifts the students assembled.
The products range from small chocolates wrapped in a holiday theme or personalized for weddings and graduations to simple scone and cocoa mixes in decorated mugs. BizWorld charges the public "at-cost" prices (most items are a dollar or two) and puts all of the proceeds back into purchasing more inventory, said Julie Williams, Transition 15 supervisor.
This is the second full school year of the retail store, and Schmitt said sales growth year over year has been incredible.
Last school year the store sold about $5,000 worth of merchandise. To date this school year, it's sold around $4,600 worth of merchandise, about three-quarters of which has been Christmas and holiday themed.
Transition 15 serves students in the special education program who are 18 to 21 years old and may have any range of physical, behavioral or mental disabilities. Every student has the chance to work on BizWorld projects to learn assembly-line-like skills. Some are assisted by staff or work modified routines.
Schmitt said this curriculum differs from programs at other schools that may sell arts and crafts created by special education students. The BizWorld products are all designed by staff, and the students follow strict instructions and apply quality control standards to each.
Shanney Bixler, 20, said she is a stickler for quality control. She said she likes to point out chocolates that come in slightly defective (there's a bonus: the students get to eat them).
Schmitt put together a 24-page catalog of BizWorld's holiday offerings. The program has no money for marketing, so it advertises through district-wide e-mails and relies heavily on word-of-mouth referrals. The program takes orders through its page on the district website, but there's no shipping arm of the operation yet, so customers have to pick up their orders or get them through inter-district mailing.
Jordan Keeling, 19, said he likes working on packaging the items and has been surprised at how fast the shop has grown. It started with just a few orders a week and "now we're swamped," he said. "It's quite an accomplishment." Keeling said he would like to follow in his father's and cousins' footsteps, working on trains for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
His favorite BizWorld items to work on are the Jiffy Pops and the brownie mugs. "When I get into a rhythm I can do it really fast," he said.
In the past, when the job coordinator couldn't find enough off-site work positions for the students, they might simulate some of the work skills by inserting flashlight batteries in an item and removing them, or practicing assembly of an item with a "job box."
Williams said the students like to see that they've created a product, and they take pride in seeing satisfied customers purchase their products.
Feedback from customers has been largely positive, said Williams. "Customers appreciate that they're helping the students learn skills," she said. People also have been surprised at the prices, Williams said, especially for large orders, like items for weddings and graduation parties.
Schmitt created a time system to compensate the students for their time working on BizWorld products. They earn certificates that they redeem for snacks in the school's canteen or use to purchase goods in the gift shop.
Last year, many of the students purchased small holiday gifts for their family members using their certificates. Bixler said she used her certificates to buy candy bars as gifts for her family.
"It helps them be more independent," Williams said. Some of the students have never managed money before or purchased a gift without help from family.