The Anoka-Hennepin School District is launching a fashion boutique of sorts.

The new Pathways Career Closet will make interview and career clothing available for free to any eligible Anoka-Hennepin student. At the same time, the shop at Pathways, the district's transition program for students ages 18-21, offers students experience in choosing and managing inventory, creating displays and interacting with customers -- basically, everything but handling the money.

The Pathways program, in its second year, serves students who have not graduated from high school because of a disability, an interruption in their schooling or any of a multitude of other life circumstances. All of the students are on Individual Education Plans (IEPs). The program, which teaches skills for jobs and post-secondary education, is located in the Coon Rapids Family Place Mall, at Coon Rapids Boulevard and Round Lake Boulevard.

Work coordinator Paula Holden came up with the hands-on education program last spring and just got the OK to go ahead a couple of weeks ago.

She and her students have spent their days sorting through clothes donated to the district Family Welcome Center, finding the nicest shirts, pants, dresses, skirts, shoes and handbags. She spends her nights imagining ways to transform the sterile, brightly lit classroom into an appealing shop people will want to visit.

Some 3 a.m. ideas include posters of real students modeling donated outfits and professional postures; a website to display inventory and make appointments; a neon sign and window displays, and partnerships with local and national retailers for donations and mentoring.

"I hope to give back good workers that they don't have to train and retrain," Holden said.

Already, a flat plywood mannequin dubbed "Manny," positioned at the entrance, sports a dress shirt, tie and khakis. A mailing station has been transformed into cubbies for folded pants and shirts. Hanging racks separate clothes by gender and type. Piles of clothing await sorting and ironing. Holden has set up a table with chairs for staff meetings and breaks. She hopes to add stations where students can learn to knot neckties and do simple mending.

The class walked down to the Coon Rapids Goodwill store nearby to see how a thrift store can showcase and keep inventory.

"I'm all in the dream state right now," Holden said, laughing. "I don't want it to look like a garage sale. ... We want that boutique feel. It's too small to be Herberger's."

Student Emilie McKenzie, 18, who spent one morning hanging shirts and sweaters in the shop, said the experience will change how she views retail stores from now on, and she values an experience that will help her gain skills for a job.

"I would be willing to do something like this," she said, though she added that she thinks it will get more interesting when there are customers to break up the monotony of hanging and folding.

Still, there are challenges. There's little or no budget to work with, and Holden's students often have issues just getting to class. Getting to work, presenting themselves well, working efficiently and putting their cellphones away are considered by some to be "soft skills," said site supervisor Kathy Ferguson. But those are exactly the skills that employers have asked the Pathways program to stress.

Holden said she hopes that students -- referred by teachers, social workers, work coordinators and administrators to find an outfit -- will show up ready to accept help and that her students will learn skills to assist them.

Eventually, she hopes to have professionals in the shop to help with résumé-writing, interviewing and other skills.

"I hope we can make it easy for students in need to access all the resources available," she said. "A lot of students are afraid to talk about it. They say, 'I don't want to work,' but really, they don't have anything to wear."

McKenzie said there were several outfits in the store that she'd choose. She pulled a red and black plaid top off the rack and a purple-striped one, though she backed away from a black and white print dress -- "it's not my style." "There's plenty of things the average student might wear," she said.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409