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The friendliest store at school

Students ‘feel very proud of what they’re doing here’

It’s 10:15 on a Wednesday morning, and the Spirit Store at Lowell High School is bustling with preparations for another day of sales.

At the cash register, Caeden Kaufman cuts “staff member of the month” nomination forms for customers to fill out, while special education teacher Olivia Johnson shows Jacob Thomas how to keep track of sales of slushies he’s in charge of making for the first time ever.

Yes, we deliver: Jacob Thomas delivers slushies from the Spirit Store to the Freshman Center

A few minutes later, senior Grant Pratt works with Caeden to press Red Arrow decals onto T-shirts for sale, something he’s learned through a partnership with Fans in the Stands on Main Street.

Nearby, at the popcorn machine, Justus Farrell scoops butter-flavored goodness into paper bags that Connor Fitzpatrick will deliver to the freshman center pop-up store.

“If it falls out of the bag, you can eat it,” Justus proclaims before popping a kernel into his mouth.

For the next hour and a half, students and teachers will drift in and out for something to eat, wear or just a fist-bump and a friendly greeting. “How can I help you?” and “Have a nice day” are the two most oft-spoken sentences.

It’s learning how to juggle all of those things at once that Johnson wants her students with special needs to master.

Zack Eckman makes change for a customer

Leaving a Legacy

Spirit Store opened five years ago in a small, glass-front space opposite the main office. It only operated briefly, Johnson said, and had been shuttered since. It had gradually had been overtaken as a storage space.

Last year Johnson decided to reopen for the final trimester, and it was successful among student staffers and customers both. The revenues from that final trimester alone were used to get the store stocked and running this year.

The goal, Johnson explained, “is to provide students with special needs with social experiences that allow them to grow and understand appropriate social behavior.” At the same time, they learn functional math skills by making change at the register, keeping track of inventory and balancing the books. They interact with customers and vendors, and take turns in each position to learn what it takes to operate a clean, efficient retail store.

There are nine students with special needs working at the store this trimester, and a handful of general education students who work alongside them. General education students also meet throughout the trimester with the school’s special education director, social worker, and physical and occupational therapists “to learn about all of the pieces of the puzzle that go into special education,” Johnson said.

Justus Farrell scoops popcorn as parapro Marilee Trierweiler looks on

“That’s about working on eliminating the stigma around what we associate with special education, that everybody’s different and we need to learn how to work together and accommodate our differences,” she explained.

What’s more, she added, “a lot of good relationships have formed among students. We’re encouraging them to take those relationships outside the class and into the hallways and the community.”

Johnson said the class is working on changing themes at Spirit Store as the year unfolds. For homecoming, they sold cider-flavored slushies and doughnuts. And for Pink Arrow Pride week, slushies turned pink, too.

“The theme for Pink Arrow this year was about leaving a legacy, and many of our students said they wanted their legacy to be their time at Spirit Store,” Johnson said. “My kids feel very proud of what they’re doing here.”

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Red Arrow Spirit Store

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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