The Pittsburgh winter gray sky mirrors the mood of the day. The town’s beloved Steelers had just been ousted from the playoffs the night before. Inside their classroom in Upper St. Clair High School, the students aren’t paying attention to the weather or the gloomy day. They are busy.
In pairs or in groups of three, they sit at tables. Some fold colorful cards; others cut out tiny paw stickers to place on plastic key chains.
In an adjacent room, another group of students is creating made-to-order T-shirts on the direct-to-garment printer that takes up most of the room.
This is not a typical high school classroom. It’s SHOP @ USC, part student-run business, part vocational education, part something else entirely. Some students are in special education, others are in general education. They come together to design, create, produce, and sell greeting cards, T-shirts, key chains, signs and banners, and other school spirit items.
“We have a long history of doing inclusion in this district, says Deputy Superintendent Sharon Suritsky. “We’re very familiar with how to combine students with and without disabilities, but this program does it in a very different way.”
Upper St. Clair is a high-performing district with just over 4,000 students in the South Hills suburbs of Pittsburgh. It ranks consistently as one of the top Pennsylvania districts. U.S. News & World Report in 2016 named the high school 113th in the nation. The high school has a 98 percent graduation rate, and 96 percent of graduates go on to higher education.
SHOP @ USC (Showing How Opportunity Pays at Upper St. Clair) came about as an idea sparked by district middle-schoolers making and selling greeting cards. Suritsky, a former special education teacher, was searching for a way to fund a high-tech makerspace at the high school, as well to offer opportunities to students with severe disabilities.
“We started just really crazy brainstorming about how could we raise money to fund this innovation hub,” says Suritsky, “but also at the same time kind of take advantage of all the equipment and really try to do something really innovative for our students with special needs.”
Suritsky worked with the district’s director of advancement to get some small grants and private donations for seed money for the program. A wide-format printer, a vinyl cutter, a digital printing press, a laminator, and a direct-to-garment printer were purchased.
SHOP @ USC class offers vocational training for special education students—those with significant disabilities, students on the autism spectrum, and students with moderate to severe mental retardation.
“In many school districts, a lot of these students typically don’t receive their education in a public school,” says Suritsky.
About 17 students with disabilities—ages 14 to 21—attend the class. General education students take the class as an elective. Together, students work to create and sell the items.
“Some students may just be able to fold the cards and stuff them with envelopes, while others may be able to use Photoshop and Illustrator,” says teacher Michelle Zirngibl, who coordinates the SHOP @ USC program. “We find out where the students’ strengths are, and we break apart a task so that everyone can be a part of producing an item.”
At lunch time, students stock the merchandise kiosk and roll it out to the cafeteria, usually in groups of two or three. Working with the kiosk teaches other job skills: keeping track of inventory, handling money, and working with the public.
“The students know this is their business,” says Zirngibl. “They own it. So, any business decision that we make, I always run it past the students.”
Inclusion, not isolation
The keychains, T-shirts, digital printers, and design software are the most visible element of SHOP @ USC.
But that’s only part of the program. The other part, subtler but just as tangible, is the relationships that have formed between the students.
Students with severe disabilities are often isolated and have few opportunities to interact with the general education students. The SHOP @ USC program has broken through that isolation. The general education students help the special education students feel more a part of the school community. They make sure the special education students go to school dances and football games. They text one another before and after school, and go to movies on the weekend.
“We expected SHOP to be positive for our students in the Life Skills program, as well as for their peers,” says Suritsky. “But, I don’t think any of us quite envisioned just how magical this program is. That part has really gone beyond our expectations.”
The class is growing in popularity. The first year of the program, no formal classes were held—general education students could volunteer during their free periods. The second year, the high school offered a formal class, Partners in SHOP, for the volunteers. The class has grown from one section to three sections in two years.
More than a few of the Partners students have decided to study special education because of their experiences in the SHOP @ USC program.
Sophomore Noah Markovitz is one of those students. In addition to the Partners class, he also volunteers for other programs at the high school that allow him to work with special education students. From Noah’s point of view, he’s getting as much or more out of the class and the relationships and friendships he’s formed.
SHOP @ USC is also a hit with the parents. Jane Snowden, who is a substitute aide for the district, says her daughter Imogen tells her every day that her favorite class is SHOP @ USC. “She’s really proud of her work,” says Snowden. “So, yeah, she gets a lot of out of it.”
Principal Louis Angelo says the main draw for students is not the technology or the business aspects, but the relationships—the bond between the students and the adults in the classroom. They are learning how to be positive influences and how to support others. “Sometimes it’s just holding a piece of paper in place, or handing them the appropriate colored pen,” he says. “Those are the things that seem so simple in the action, but the depth of impact is immeasurable.”
Culture of innovation
It would be easy for a school district like Upper St. Clair—a high-achieving district in an affluent community—to rest on its accomplishments and not worry about such a very small population of students.
But, says Superintendent Patrick O’Toole, that’s never been the hallmark of the Upper St. Clair School District or the community.
“This community realizes that all of our students are unique, and it’s in our vision statement that we nurture the uniqueness of each child,” he says. “And this idea that our staff is industrious and looks for creative and new ways that help children and help families in a unique way is important to our overall mission.”
Creating a culture of innovation can be tricky in a district that already is doing many things right. But the encouragement to try new things comes from the school board and is echoed by administrators and teachers.
“Building a culture of innovation and risk takes trust,” says board member Barbara Bolas “And one thing that we have always worked for is to be trustworthy in our role as board member, in our personal relationships, and with all of our interactions with our staff members.”
Through the district’s curriculum development process, curriculum leaders come to the board with proposals. Programs are tested with the understanding that not all will be successful. “When there’s that direct interchange between the board members and the people who are in the classroom, “says Bolas, “it gives the staff a sense of confidence to say, ‘OK, we can try this.”
Bolas has been a board member since 1985, and she has served as president of both the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and the National School Boards Association. Allowing people to make mistakes and mentoring them through their mistakes, she says, is an essential part of encouraging innovation.
“You create that sense of collaboration and partnership, that everyone is responsible for a student’s success—whether it be at the board table, the staff table, the student his or herself, or the community.”
Kathleen Vail (email@example.com) is editor-in-chief of American School Board Journal.