Learning To Help Themselves Students Running A Grocery Store

Posted: December 22, 1991

Joyce Steele dreams of financial success and independence for her son Torre, which she hopes he'll find among carefully arranged displays of canned goods, breakfast cereals, baked beans, toilet paper, ketchup and other grocery items for sale at Lenape High School.

Until this year Room D107 at the high school in Medford was a classroom that looked like dozens of others at the school. The chalkboard is still there, but now D107 has a new name and a new look that includes a cash register, aisle shelves, a conveyor belt and a refrigerator.

And it has a built-in customer base that many merchants would kill for - a captive market of more than 1,500 hungry teenagers and dozens of teachers and administrators.

It's the Trading Post, a 400-square-foot scaled-down supermarket where special-education students in the regional district learn the ins and outs of supermarket retailing.

"This is something that's desperately needed," said Joyce Steele, who did a little grocery shopping after the store officially opened for business Dec. 11 while Torre helped classmate Keith Mercantini at the cash register. "Now Torre has something to look forward to at school and hopefully after graduation."

The supermarket is a joint project of the school district, the state Department of Education and Wakefern Corp., the corporate owner of the Shop Rite supermarket chain, that aims to prepare some of the district's special- education students for work in area supermarkets.

The Lenape store, which is open for business from 7:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. four days a week, is one of 19 stores at high schools throughout the state that Wakefern has helped to start. In South Jersey, there are two other such markets - one at Gloucester County Vocational School and another at Cherry Hill High School West.

Besides showing the students how to set up and operate the store, Wakefern provided equipment, $3,500 in stock, shelving and other supplies and even employee hats and aprons, as well as shopping ads for the walls to give the room an authentic look.

"It's been a real learning experience for all of us," said Ray Shobert, grocery manager of the Shop Rite supermarket in Marlton, who gave the six students in the program much of their training before the grand opening of the store. "These kids are going to make great employees someday."

Although Wakefern is under no obligation to hire any of the students, ''we're confident many of them will be able to get jobs in area supermarkets," Shobert said. "They're learning good work habits here, which will make them valuable employees later."

What makes the program so special, said Barry Croll, supervisor of special education for the Lenape district, is that it provides the students with ''real-life" experiences.

"Special-education students frequently find it difficult to learn tasks which may be slightly different from what they learned at school," Croll said. "Here they're learning the same thing they'd be doing in an area supermarket: bagging groceries, proper stocking techniques, when to hold sales and handling the register." And after the store was open only an hour, the students got their first complaint: Limited hours.

"Right now only faculty and staff can shop here, but we plan to expand shopping hours to allow students to shop before and after school after the holidays," Croll said. "And we hope to offer more foods that kids like, things like Tastykakes."

Aside from gaining work experience, there are other benefits, said Croll, including greater self-esteem.

"These kids really feel good about themselves, and they are learning to accept responsibility," Croll said.

As Adam McFarland explained while he and fellow student David Whipple restocked the shelves, "It's up to us to get the job done. If we don't do it, it doesn't get done."

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