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Welcome Home in Simeon’s Room 172

Photo caption: INSTRUCTORS NIKISHA HENDERSON and Shavone Walton (In the Black Outfit) posing with their Classroom 172 students. (Photo by Chinta Strausberg)

Unique lifestyle-simulated classroom provides blessings, abundant and free

Welcome to Room 172, housed in a corner of Simeon Career Academy High School, where for the past five years two teachers have showered students with blessings that go way beyond traditional classroom instruction.

Simulating home life, Room 172 includes a tiny kitchen tucked discreetly in a corner of the classroom, called Sweet Café, where students learn not only how to cook meals but acquire cooking safety skills as well.

The program, which includes students from freshman to senior year, has been the best kept secret for the past five years. That’s when the program’s architects, Nikisha Henderson, program creator/instructor, and her instructor, Shavone Walton, created Life Skills for Diverse Learners.

The creation of the program is where Henderson and Walton wrapped their arms around students who might have been overlooked and turned them into believers of themselves and explorers of the world.

During a visit last Friday, March 10, students were anxious to answer questions about cooking and kitchen safety procedures like when and how to use fire safety equipment, such as the fire extinguisher.

The instructors teach students both safety as well as basic culinary skills, like how to cook chicken, homemade pizzas, pastries, macaroni and cheese, greens and other popular dishes. In addition to those skills, they teach the power of meditation, online workouts, and life skills like how to shop for groceries.

The teachers also take the young people on field trips, as they did last summer when they took students to a show and taught them how to shop for groceries at different stores, including Target, to expand their horizons.

Henderson and Walton teach vocational preparation, help students secure employment and teach manners, including how to respect adults.

On one side of the classroom is a picture with the Target logo, the location of the classroom’s “store.”

“This is a functioning Target, the kids operate it. They all have IDs, name tags. We provide the food for them. There is a reward-based program. They are able to buy from the store.” She said one of the students is named employee of the month each month.

The Target program is curriculum-based. The students work in the school and have to be on time to be paid. They can purchase goods with real money provided by the teachers. It is a school-work incentive.

“The Target store is a job simulation,” Henderson said. “We have stock people, cashiers and employee of the month.” That honor, she said, is bestowed on a student who has shown model behavior in the classroom.

Students are able to purchase items from the Target store based on class participation and good behavior.

“Each student receives about a $1 a day from the classroom cashier,” explained Henderson. “They can choose to purchase items every afternoon or let the money build up to purchase items at the end of the week.”

Henderson said before they had a Target store program, they had a student café where they served coffee, tea and hot chocolate. The teachers provide the money for this program.

One of their star students is Artez Haywood, 17, a junior, who worked last summer while enrolled in their summer program at Greencorps Chicago, making bikes for the community with One Summer Chicago.

Henderson and Walton believe no child should be left behind, especially those with disabilities, and they have help from Monique Gaston, lead site coordinator for the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Center (GAGDC), which sponsors the program. Her organization partners with five schools, including Simeon. “We provide resources, and meals before or after school,” said Gaston, who also oversees their budget.

On Friday, Henderson and Walton were teaching students how to make gourmet caramel popcorn with dark chocolate chips and marshmallows. Henderson taught them how to safely use a microwave oven and the stove. The teaching duo believes adding instruction in safety procedures is key to the success of their holistic program.

Their goals are clear—teach students independent living skills, along with personal, social and vocational skills.

“The objective for this program is to foster independent functioning in our diverse learner population so that they can become contributing members of society,” Henderson explained.

And then there is the “Giving Closet,” located directly in back of Classroom 172 where students can go and get free clothes, personal hygiene products, shoes, socks and other items they perhaps can’t afford.

Many of the youth are being raised by “secondary parents, meaning their grandparents,” Henderson explained. “A lot of times, we take on a second parent role. That is why our classroom is set up like a living room or a kitchen, giving them a feel of home.”

Their program, which includes all grades and students up to 22 years of age, teaches survival skills, which helps them cook meals, take care of their grandparents or other relatives where they live.

But showering their students with the necessities of life comes with a price; that is, mostly straight out of the pockets of Henderson and Walton.

With some help from GAGDC, the two teachers try to keep their classroom refrigerator and deep freezer stocked with food students need for their cooking classes. The teachers purchase most of the food from Walmart or Aldi’s. Sometimes the teachers send the children home with food so they can prepare meals for their family.

Simeon, Henderson said, is a “safe haven” in more ways than one for its students.

This year’s students in classroom 172 are KeJuan Blackwell, Mikayla Carter, Davion Harris, Artez Haywood, Imani Jones, Jayda Madison, who is currently “Employee of the Month,” Jamaya Pullum, Ryan Sanders and Carl Taylor.

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