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 Article of Interest - Transition

Minding their own business: A special-ed class builds skills as it builds sales
by J.J. Jensen, Seattle Times, October 7, 2002
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit www.bridges4kids.org


Tommy Couser, a seventh-grader at Whitman Middle School, shows off a checkbook that reflects mounting revenue for Ink Inc. The student-run business, which sells used printer cartridges to a recycler, has an unusual corporate goal: a class trip to Universal Studios Hollywood.

From the outside, it's hard to imagine magic could take place in the portable classroom of special-education instructor Cheryl Nixon and instructional assistants Becky Cline and Melodie Baker.

Separated from the main building at Seattle's Whitman Middle School, the location is a bit of an outpost. To get to the small portable, which is in need of a paint job, you pass through outdoor basketball courts, where weeds protrude from cracks in the blacktop and nets are absent from many rims. A rusty chain-link fence stands between the class and some plush, green athletic fields.

Walk through the door, however, and the colors are almost blinding. Bright red, blue and green rugs line the floor, yellow curtains hang from the windows, and flowers sit atop the students' desks. The room is called the Dyspraxic Room and is for students who have difficulty processing information and need extra help with communication skills.

For 50 minutes a day, at the end of the day, the three teachers oversee 11 special-education students in a course known as "The Biz." The students have formed their own company, Ink Inc., that collects empty ink-jet and laser printer cartridges and sells them to Ecco Recycles of Kent. If they make enough money, the students sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders want to take a class trip to Universal Studios Hollywood.

"This is a dream that might change their whole lives," said Nixon, 52, who has taught off and on for eight years in different states. "A lot of these children could go with their families, but they're not going to go with the school system because they're not in clubs or after-school activities."

Aside from the prospect of reaching their goal, there is an even greater benefit, say teachers and parents: the number of skills the kids are learning.

A teacher-learning expo gave Nixon the idea of students running their own recycling business. She later learned Ingraham High School had a similar program and patterned Whitman's after that one.

Nixon saw numerous learning opportunities in running a company marketing, advertising, math and public speaking, for instance.

The first year, the students worked to get the business off the ground. They came up with a name, elected officers and designed a company logo, stationery and business cards.

The students then had to decide how they would get clients. Focusing their efforts on the 1,200 students at Whitman, they put up fliers at school and wrote an article in a parent newsletter, attached with bags in which to recycle cartridges.

By February, the business was off the ground. The students had landed accounts with the IRS, Swedish Medical Center and Windermere Real Estate. By the end of the year, receiving $2 to $12 per cartridge, they made $800. Superintendent Joseph Olchefske visited the class to congratulate them.

This year, business continued to boom. Recently, company president Brandon Manney, an eighth-grader, addressed the Ballard Chamber of Commerce. Impressed, the chamber asked the students to be honorary members.

Last week, the class celebrated with cake and root beer as it passed another landmark: $1,000 in sales.

Manney said the class is the highlight of the day for the students.

"This is the big enchilada, the big news," he said. "Mrs. Nixon makes it fun. The business part is when we knuckle down and do our work."

Along the way, the students have kept minutes from meetings, and learned business strategy and how to keep inventory, balance a checkbook and market their company.

"It's not only academics, they're instilling how to live, politeness, cooperation and how to solve problems without hurting each other or each other's feelings," said Linda Couser, whose son, Tommy, is in the class. "They really have a very caring group."

Nixon likes the confidence her students have gained communicating with others, and how close she has become with them.

"There's so many great parts to this job, but the best is the caring the kids have for us," she said.

J.J. Jensen: 206-464-2386 or jjensen@seattletimes.com

 

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