Published on Tue., April 30, 2024

Visit the Heritage High School library before the first bell rings, and you’ll be greeted with the smell of brewing coffee and the sound of friendly chatter. Students congregate at the Pioneer Café each morning for coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and conversation. The student-run coffee shop has been serving drinks and building community for almost 15 years.

The Pioneer Café is a beloved social hub before school and between classes, and its benefits extend behind the counter, too. Special education students staff the cafe in the mornings, gaining career and social skills in the process.

“Our students develop soft and hard skills that give them practical work experiences. We try to equip them with tools needed to be successful in future employment opportunities once they graduate,” said special education teacher Shannon Yeager, who helps her students run the café every morning. “We work on skills like counting money, working the register, taking and preparing orders, taking inventory, communication, and listening.”

Student pouring coffee in Pioneer Café
Special education students learn valuable career skills as baristas at the Pioneer Café.

Career skills are important, Yeager explains, because of the independence meaningful employment can afford special education students after graduation. Working at the café helps students try their hand at a simulated job, discovering their strengths and growing in a safe environment with the guidance of teachers and library staff.

“At first glance, some people might not think our students are as employable after graduation, but that’s not true. There are lots of assumptions that students with disabilities or ‘different abilities’ can’t do things,” Yeager said. “When people see what our students are capable of and that they do it well, they’re sometimes surprised. But our kids can do a lot. They make me proud.”

Heritage High ninth grader Treasure Johnson sees her barista position as a way to develop skills for her future career. One of the most enthusiastic café workers, she's all smiles during her shifts.

“It’s cool to serve drinks to people. I want to do something with cooking for my future job,” Johnson said. “I love math. I get to do math here when I work with money.”

Student behind the counter of Pioneer Cafe
Heritage High eleventh grader Justice Greer volunteers as a barista at the Pioneer Café.

Johnson’s classmate and fellow barista Justice Greer wants to work at GameStop in the future and is learning cash register skills at the Pioneer Café. He appreciates the cafe’s value as a social and cultural center at Heritage High.

“It’s an important part of school. People get drinks,” Greer said. “People sit at the tables and talk.”

The cafe’s most popular offering by far is their hot cocoa, which many students order with flavored syrups mixed in. It’s Johnson’s favorite drink, too; after every shift, she orders a cup. She and her fellow baristas enjoy being customers at the café just as much as they like working behind the counter. 

“I like it when my friends are here. I get to meet different people. My favorite part is handing them their drinks,” Johnson said. 

Student handing change to cafe customer
Student and school staff at cash register
Heritage High ninth grader Treasure Johnson volunteers as a barista at the Pioneer Café.

The Pioneer Café instills a sense of community and belonging in both customers and volunteers. It also serves as a unique touchpoint where general education students and students with disabilities can connect. Many students frequent the café, and the baristas develop friendly rapport with them. 

“The general education students are patient with our students. As my students warm up to their jobs, I’m noticing that some of them are becoming more social and confident,” Yeager said.

Many general education students appreciate the chances they get to interact with the special education students behind the counter. Eleventh grader Katavia Spinner sees the café as a diverse social hub for students. 

“I appreciate the inclusivity aspect. When special education students run the café, they get chances to practice socio-emotional skills,” Spinner said. 

Two students at table with cups of coffee
Heritage High students stop for a drink before class.

Though the Pioneer Café sells drinks for cheaper than you’d be able to find at a typical coffee shop, it still manages to bring in a couple thousand dollars a year. Heritage High special education classes use the profits for hands-on occupational education opportunities. 

In the past, they’ve bought equipment for their adaptive kitchen, in which students can learn cooking skills. They’ve also funded community-based instruction opportunities, in which students apply what they’ve learned in real-world settings; for example, classes have visited the grocery store to practice social skills and money management. Yeager also buys snacks for students to enjoy during class as a reward for their hard work. 

“When they see the things the café has allowed us to buy for our classrooms, they recognize that, oh, this is a job. While they don’t actually get a paycheck, they recognize that their hard work yields rewards. They’re being rewarded for a job well done,” Yeager said. 

This year, Pioneer Café funds also went toward the formation of Heritage High’s newest–and most unconventional–Virginia High School League (VHSL) sport. The Esports program, led by head librarian Kennon Edwards and video technology teacher Cole Eldridge, played their first season this spring. 

Esports provide students with opportunities to play video games competitively. The Heritage High team made their debut in the Super Smash Bros arena after securing a grant from the LCS Education Foundation that allowed them to purchase the gaming equipment they needed to kick off the program. Money from the Pioneer Café helped the team purchase jerseys and will support them through future seasons. 

Librarian in Heritage HS shirt sitting in front of video game monitor
Head librarian Kennon Edwards helps coach the new Esports team, which instills values like discipline and teamwork through competitive video gaming.

“School athletics play a valuable role in students’ lives. We saw how Coach Bradley’s football players walk around the school with discipline—they’re polite and motivated because of the great coaches and teammates they have supporting them,” Edwards said. “We wanted that for kids who might not be physically athletic. This is a way to turn video games, a hobby many students have, into a productive and uplifting activity for kids to share.”

The Pioneer Café has a long history of partnership with sports programs. Shortly after the program first started a decade and a half ago, the Heritage High football team ran the coffee shop due to a brief shortage of special education students in the building. Under library assistant Daronda Dansby’s leadership, the café served as a fundraiser for the football team, helping supply equipment they needed. Once the special education program resumed involvement a few years later, the café became a collaboration between it and the football program. 

The new Heritage High School building, opened in 2016, included a brand-new dedicated café space in the library—an upgrade from the spot it had previously occupied. Its new spot brings the worlds of coffee lovers, bookworms, and gamers together, building even more bridges between diverse groups of students. 

School staff with student in the Pioneer Cafe
From left to right: Library assistant Daronda Dansby, head librarian Kennon Edwards, student barista Treasure Johnson, special education teacher Shannon Yeager, and librarian Tamara Johnson. Library staff members run the café after the student baristas head to class following the morning rush.

“The café helps special education students meet students they wouldn’t have met before, but it also brings people to the library who wouldn’t otherwise frequent it in their free time, exposing them to the books and resources we have to offer here,” said librarian Tamara Johnson.

Now operating in a new space and supporting the Esports program instead of the football program, the Pioneer Café has evolved since serving its first cup of coffee. But its vital role in the connective tissue of the school community has remained the same. 

“I like the people at the Pioneer Café. It’s an important resource, and it helps people talk to each other more and get out of their shell,” said 11th grader Vyktor Thurman, who visits the café every day and knows the staff by name. 

The Pioneer Café’s benefits to Heritage High students are manifold. It’s a social center, a career development program, a fundraiser, and a place to get a good cup of joe. Though students are drawn to the café for diverse reasons, each will leave with connections that last long after the coffee turns cold.

Student handing coffee to another student in cafe
Student barista Justice Greer serves eleventh grader Vyktor Thurman.
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