MUSCATINE, Iowa - While his peers sit at their desks waiting for lunch, Muscatine High School sophomore Clyde Staats is in the kitchen cooking.
Staats is one of 16 MHS special education students who participate in the Muskie Inn, a vocational foods class that serves and sells lunch to MHS staff during the school's regular lunch period.
Associate principal Diane Campbell said the primary purpose of the Muskie Inn is to provide special education students with real-life experiences.
Students learn economic and social skills as they plan and cook meals and assist customers.
"Students have a strong sense of accomplishment when they make something and can serve others," said Campbell. "This is a win/win scenario."
Staats enjoys browning hamburger meat and washing dishes. Soon, he will learn how to use the cash register.
"My parents think it's good for me to work here," said Staats, who also helps in the kitchen at home.
Debbi Castle, teacher of the vocational foods class, said the reading and math involved in a standard home economics class can be challenging for some special education students, but the Muskie Inn is designed to help them succeed.
"We provide instruction in a step-by-step manner," said Castle, who is assisted by two paraeducators and two one-on-one paraeducators.
Photos on the outside of the kitchen cupboards, refrigerator and freezer show what's inside. The students also learn other important skills.
"We stress hygiene," said Castle. "If someone scratches their head they have to wash their hands."
The Muskie Inn crew also recycles and everyone learns how to clean up after themselves.
Campbell said the Muskie Inn was established in the early 1980s by special education teacher Jan Tank, who ran the restaurant as a way to provide vocational experiences for students.
When Tank died of cancer, the program ended. Campbell and fellow teacher Lori Melhus, put the Muskie Inn back in business.
"We started by just having a baked potato bar on Fridays," said Campbell. "It was so popular that the restaurant grew into a
service that is provided five days a week."
A busy day
The Muskie Inn staff begins each day by checking the duties listed next to each student's name.
As he worked in the Muskie Inn on Feb. 17, senior Eric St. Clair was thinking about making dinner for his own family later that day.
"I'm actually cooking at home on Thursdays now," said St. Clair. "I make spaghetti, pigs in the blanket and I'm thinking about trying taco salad."
St. Clair looks forward to gaining more independence after he graduates. He plans to move to an area group home and said he will be getting a job soon. St. Clair said the skills he learned at the Muskie Inn provide him with confidence.
"Eric is willing to do any job that's put in front of him," said Castle.
Freshman Daija Philpott said the kitchen is a busy place during the lunch hour.
"There's always something that needs to be done," said Philpott. "We don't stand around."
Lynn Plett, a paraeducator at MHS for 16 years, has spent the past five years working at the Muskie Inn.
Like the students, she's learning new things.
"We all work so well together. And I like the cooking," said Plett. "I didn't cook at home when I was a kid. My mom thought I'd mess the place up."
Paraeducator Judy Crile said she comes to the Muskie Inn for friendly lunch-time company.
Plus, she said, "Lynn makes really good salads."
Plenty of choices
The Muskie Inn serves up to 50 customers a day, cooking up tacos, burgers, home-style casseroles and other menu items.
Making desserts is one of junior Brad Curtis' favorite jobs and his work is always appreciated.
The chocolate earthquake cake is popular with diners and easy to make. Castle also uses a simple cheesecake recipe that lists just four ingredients. Cookies and pies are also part of the sweet line up.
Menu specials can be ordered the day before and prices start at $3 for main dishes. Desserts are 50 cents and ice cream sundaes are $1.
Paraeducator Tammy McLaughlin enjoys watching the students at work when she dines at the Muskie Inn.
Sometimes her husband, Mike, joins her there on Fridays.
"I love their chicken tacos," said Tammy McLaughlin. "And their earthquake cake is awesome."
Jean Garner, director of finance for the district, said the Muskie Inn is operated as a self-supported program. The money from the food sold there goes to purchasing the groceries and supplies to prepare and sell.
The students receive tips which are saved for an end-of-the-year outing to a restaurant.