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Bitter Sweet Café hits the sweet spot for VCAL students

The tuckshop or canteen is a key feature at most schools, but very few have their own café. MacKillop’s specialist school in Geelong went a step further, opening their very own student-run endeavour, the Bitter Sweet Café.

The café menu wasn’t just built around delicious food and drinks, it was designed around a range of learning outcomes. When the doors opened in June 2018, few could have imagined this innovative project would be such a success.

The café has just been recognised in the 2018 VCAL (Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning) Achievement Awards, taking out the Teacher Award – Team Teaching category.

Announced by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), the café was recognised as an outstanding example of the diverse ways in which young people can be challenged and extended to achieve great learning outcomes.

The awards, to be presented in April, celebrate the achievements of young people completing VCAL qualifications and recognise the exceptional efforts of teachers and community partners who play a significant role within the VCAL program.

The Bitter Sweet Café is part of a VCAL project aimed at supporting local students aged 12-17 who are disengaged, or at risk of disengaging from school. Students attending the school are unable to access education in a mainstream school due to a range of issues including a clinical diagnosis of depression, anxiety, autism, defiance disorder and/or challenging behaviours that make it difficult for them to focus on learning.

Thanks to a philanthropic grant from the Dimmick Charitable Trust, students had the opportunity to gain hospitality industry skills to support their transition to future employment and training.

Students were able to complete their Level 1 Barista Certificate, develop safe food handling skills and learn basic food preparation. The café also enhanced student numeracy, literacy, social and communication and problem-solving skills. Teamwork exercises included creating marketing material and preparing menus and budgets.

In the time the café ran, overall student attendance improved by 20%, and all students met key individual café responsibilities and completed VCAL’s work related skills learning outcome.

Such has been the project’s success, VCAL teachers, Denise Walker and Hannah Stud, were invited to speak at a VCAL quality assurance meeting, during which the project and the school’s VCAL template was described as ‘exemplary’. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority has since contacted the school to suggest it nominates for the VCAL Achievement Awards.

Denise said the café was an ideal launching pad for students to develop the skills and confidence necessary to gain future employment.

“We ran the café as you would a small business. We spent many months planning and researching local cafes for ideas. This gave students some basic insight into how to run a business, considering everything from overheads and revenue, to marketing, menu planning and pricing.”

Throughout the project, the students also learnt about sustainability, recycling coffee grounds into the VCAL garden and encouraging customers to bring their own reusable cups.

As for the students, their response to the café has been overwhelmingly positive, with comments including:

“The café has helped me improve personally.” (Gavin)

“It was more successful than any of us could have imagined.” (Lachie)

“Working front of house helped me to develop better communication skills.” (Tamara)

“The experience has been absolutely great, especially being able to connect with people in a different way. It was nice to know I had everyone by my side to help me through my job and the day. If more schools gave them (students) an experience like this, everyone would want to go and would enjoy school a whole lot more.” (Talia)

Denise said the Geelong school couldn’t thank the Dimmick Trust enough for providing the funding that enabled the VCAL café project to go ahead.

“We are really proud of our VCAL program and are thrilled that our hard work and enthusiasm is being noticed by the greater VCAL community. We look forward to continuing to grow and develop our program to provide the best learning environment and experiences for all students.”