Loud voices of hungry high school students filled the busy cafeteria as the young woman behind the counter handed out slices of pizza.
Brooke Fredenburgh, 21, had been working since 7:30 a.m., making egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches, and stocking milk cartons at the Cave Creek Unified School District’s sole high school.
It’s a typical job. But it’s also much more to Fredenburgh, who receives special education at the school because of her epileptic seizures and a mild mental retardation.
Federal law mandates Fredenburgh and other special education students be allowed to attend high school until age 22, when she will “age out” of the public school system.
Until then, she is learning classroom and on-the-job skills through the Youth Transition Program, a schoolto-work initiative that assists students with disabilities in the transition process from school into competitive employment or further education.
Getting the cafeteria job has done wonders for Fredenburgh, said her mother, Sandra Gilligan.
“Her self-esteem has improved. It’s a difference of day and night. When she comes home she talks to everyone about her day, how important it is,” Gilligan said.
Fredenburgh has learned employable skills in the cafeteria: How to save, how to interact with other employees and how to take responsibility for her own space, said Jeff Stempak, the district’s food services director.
Learning when it is appropriate to ask for a day off for sickness or vacation was an important lesson, too, her mom said.
Fredenburgh said the extra encouragement and patience she receives working at the school have helped her to succeed.
“Since I am in special education, I do have a little more trouble than other kids,” she said. “If you don’t have bosses like that, and you have more trouble, it makes it twice as hard.”
For example, she knows that $3 will buy a student two slices of pizza, “but let’s say they want four slices, that’s when I get stuck,” she said.
She’s hoping to learn how to operate the cash register soon, so the machine can do the adding for her, she said.
When the time comes for a special needs student to leave school and join the working world, it often comes as a “shock” to the student and the family, said Michael Lins, a vice president at Scottsdale Training and Rehabilitation Services, a nonprofit agency that teaches adults living and employment skills.
“The entire family is being thrust into a new world. They lose the school support systems and in the adult world, a lot of those systems are not readily available,” he said. “They really have to rely on themselves rather than the school.”
“It’s the No. 1 thing I think of when I wake up in the morning, and then the last thing I think of when I lay my head on the pillow,” Gilligan said.
That’s why school districts are supposed to ease the transition by starting early, having students intern at jobs for just an hour or two as early as age 16.
Fredenburgh started that way in the cafeteria last year. Since then, she’s been promoted to a full staff member.
She works five-and-a-half hours, then goes into the classroom for two hours of work on independent living skills such as money management, cooking and shopping.
The district benefits, too, because it finds reliable employees to fill key positions they need to fill anyway, said Lori DiCicco, the program coordinator.
Fourteen other students work in the cafeteria, and others work in the copy center, though the majority do not get paid, she said.
Nineteen others are in paid community jobs with employers such as Bashas’, the Horny Toad restaurant, Target, Safeway and the Boulders Resort.
While Gilligan does not know exactly what the future will hold for her daughter, she would like to see her try out some of these other jobs before settling on just one.
After all, each job learned is a major boost for a student’s self-esteem, the directors said.
“They really like how I do my work.” Fredenburgh said. “I do it right. I get all my stuff done. Then if there’s still something to do, I do it. It makes me feel good.”
Stempak said that pride is evident.
“They have a really strong purpose. We say, if you guys don’t come and cut up salads, you’re hurting us tomorrow. We need you to be here, we need this done. We’re counting on you to do this,” he said.