HIDALGO — Trays filled with dishes like cream of chicken, green beans and rice, were laid in a buffet-style line. Slices of cakes where arranged on a nearby table and students waited patiently behind a ship-shaped counter for some of their first customers to arrive.
The ones conducting the operations of the first bistro to open inside Hidalgo Early College High School are 10 special education students enrolled in a class intended to provide skills by letting them run their own restaurant, Pirate Bistro.
“I just love the way we all work as a team,” said Samantha Ortiz, 17, as she prepped the meals that were soon to be served to her classmates. “This will teach me if I ever work in a restaurant how to be clean, to be mature, be nice to my customers, (and) responsible in anything I have to do in a job.”
Hidalgo Independent School District held an official opening for the restaurant Friday morning, which caters to teachers and administrators by serving breakfast during the first class period, all prepared and served by the students.
The class is part of the district’s program called Live, which was developed to provide life skills that prepare juniors and seniors in the special education program for the workforce.
“The vision for the program is to give special-needs students work skills so that they could advance,” said Lenore Salinas, special education coordinator in the Hidalgo school district. “Prior to the development of this program, we didn’t have any kind of program for students with special needs to access any kind of skill. So that’s why we created this program, to give them a fighting chance.”
The idea was in the works for about a year and administrators formed a committee to identify what needs the program would focus on, Salinas said.
Along with the class, the school began partnering with two local businesses, Walmart and Smokey Moe’s, where they would take the students to learn about the work process and atmosphere.
Then they designed the bistro idea to allow the students to apply the skills they are learning in a place they could call their own. The students are scheduled to train at these businesses twice a week and run the restaurant three days out of the week.
“Some of the students have planned to go into the culinary arts school, so we said, ‘Why don’t we run a restaurant and have you train here?’” said Janie Salazar, special education department head. “They learn responsibility, (and are) learning to be dependable, learning to work with each other.”
Students must qualify to participate in the program, which started with four and has expanded to include about 10 students. They must have a mild or moderate disability, be 17 years old or older, have completed all of their freshman and sophomore credits and have teacher recommendations.
Hidalgo school district Superintendent Xavier Salinas said the district is prepared to support the program’s growth, considering the positive feedback they’ve received from students, parents and teachers involved.
“It’s already growing, and as the program grows, we will continue to add more equipment and we will probably have to go to different periods,” Salinas said. “We are talking about aligning this with a CTE (Career and Technology) so these kids could have the skills they need.”