Before opening the FR Panther Shop, learning support teacher Michelle Longo first had to learn how to use all of the equipment, so she could show her life-skills students.
“We literally learned it all together,” Longo said.
Funded by a roughly $12,000 grant from the FR Panther Foundation, special-education students now produce ornaments, magnets and FR-branded drink-ware that has been sold to staff as well as the public at the recent Festival of the Arts.
But more importantly, program officials said, it is providing marketable job skills to students with intellectual disabilities.
“When I started we had a lot of in-house programs for life skills, like shredding documents and helping staff with smaller tasks,” Longo said. “In talking with (support services supervisor) Rich (Regelski), we wanted to give them more ‘employable’ skills. So we’re using technology and math and learning to run a business.”
Students were trained to use a point-of-sale system, and given scripts for how to end a sale and thank a customer.
Longo brought the scripts to this spring’s Festival of the Arts, but found that students largely didn’t need them.
“Adding the FR Panther Shop has been amazing,” she said. “We’re adding jobs where (life-skills students) can interact more with staff members and students.”
There is also the benefit of having a tangible end product to show off.
“That absolutely helps,” Longo said. “They see it, they see people getting excited about it, and they get great positive feedback from people at places like the Festival of the Arts.”
Regelski said it could also potentially act as a useful tool for assessing students’ skill levels.
“We may have students in earlier grades do these things, so we get a sense of what their strengths and abilities are,” he said. “That way we can match them up (with employers) in a way where things can be successful for both a student and a business.”
Skills learned through the program, as well as some minor modifications to the interview process, were part of what led to senior Blake Ritter getting a cashier job at the Shop’n Save in Murrysville.
District spokeswoman Cara Zanella, who is also the FR Panther Foundation’s executive director, said the shop is one of the foundation board’s favorite projects.
“We wanted a good, positive experience for the students,” she said. “But it also ended up helping me a lot from a PR standpoint. They’re creating these FR-branded products that we can use to promote the district.”
Longo said the next step is to consider acquiring a sort of mobile kiosk that can go on the road to sell Panther Shop products at community events.
“We want to help life-skills students really explore their work options,” she said.