A hallway in the Brookhaven Learning Center may only resemble a picturesque Main Street setting, complete with shops and a cafe, but the work being done there is very real.
There’s the florist where developmentally disabled students create arrangements and bouquets that are sold to customers. There’s the bistro-style cafe where students take orders for coffee and snacks. There’s the convenience store where students stock shelves, take inventory and operate a cash register.
It’s all part of Eastern Suffolk BOCES’ Transitional Services Program, opened in a renovated wing at the Learning Center East in Bellport and celebrated Tuesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
For 60-plus special education students from various Suffolk County districts, the half-day program in the new wing offers ways to learn employment skills and how to live more independently — all in settings that resemble actual places where they ultimately may find employment.
“It is making a much bolder and grander statement,” principal Nicole Drinkwater said. “It looks like a space you would go and work in.”
While the learning center has always offered the curriculum, Eastern Suffolk BOCES educators sought to differentiate the space from a typical classroom environment and hired the Patchogue architectural firm BBS Architecture to design it. The program features careers and courses in the fields of floral, retail, culinary and basic technology/graphic design.
The estimated $2 million cost of the renovation was covered under the regional district’s overall budget, officials there said.
Students still have classroom space, but it is incorporated into the special wing’s design. For example, a classroom exists in the rear of the store where educators use inventory to teach math skills, such as how many chips were sold that day.
The program serves students ages 14 to 21 who have a varied rate of learning, and most are from districts in eastern Suffolk. Rather than getting a diploma upon completing the program, they receive the state’s Skills and Achievement Commencement Credential, a certificate available to students with disabilities who meet certain requirements and assessments.
Eastern Suffolk BOCES educators wanted to make the space as “real world” as possible. At the florist, which includes refrigerated cases, students have filled orders for customers including school districts, which have ordered arrangements for banquets. Students also prepped bouquets and centerpieces for a staffer’s wedding. They now are taking holiday orders.
“They are better able to service a holiday, and it is what it would be like in a flower shop,” teacher Dorothy Wandelt said.
Student Brian Schwartz, 19, of the Middle Country district, has attended the school since he was 14.
“The style is nice. The classroom turned out great,” he said. “Everything is nice about it.”
The cafe includes commercial-grade equipment and numbered tables where students can practice seating customers. There is a working cash register at the store. Students are given specific and repeated instruction on how to master skills, such as taking an order at a restaurant or making change for a customer.
Teachers collaborate with corporate partners who work to place students in employment throughout the year and after they leave the program.
A handful of students already are working in jobs in areas such as food services or hospital gift shops. Eastern Suffolk BOCES’ Work Activities Center places the students and buses them to their workplaces, along with a job coach.
“The whole intention was to get students to transition from a school setting to life after school,” Drinkwater said. “Some of our students upon graduation may be successfully employed, some may have supported employment and some may just have a greater level of independence.”