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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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