Laurelton school uses store to teach, build self-esteem

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The students in the Lifeskills program at the Martin de Porres school in Springfield Gardens are setting up shop — literally.

The group of a dozen 13- to 15-year-olds is opening a store at the school at 136-25 218th St. and they’ve been responsible for everything from laying the linoleum to building the shelves, stocking the store to selling the merchandise. The store is scheduled to have its grand opening Monday at 9:30 a.m.

The school store is part of their training in Carmela Casas’ Lifeskills class, said Jeanette Altruda, technology coordinator for Martin de Porres, a private school specializing in students who have severe behavioral, emotional or learning disabilities.

“Often it’s a last stop for students before day treatment or hospitaliz­ation,” she said.

The Lifeskills program takes the focus away from a strictly academic curriculum, since the children have difficulties with that, Altruda said. Despite the fact that the students are teenagers, they read at a first- to second-grade level, she said.

“When you give them a hands-on opportunity, they make it a success,” Altruda said. “It turns their self-esteem around. That’s what keeps the whole thing going.”

The store project started about three months ago, when the school’s curriculum director approached Casas and her teaching assistant, Cynthia Perez, with the idea, Altruda said.

The first stop was the Queens Chamber of Commerce, where the students learned how to start a business, Altruda said. They met with a group of retired executives, and asked questions about running the business, she said.

Next on the list was building the store, Altruda said. The students converted a woodshed into the store, complete with linoleum floors, walls, a counter, and shelves.

“There was nothing,” Altruda said. “Everything had to be put up.”

To stock the shelves, the students went to wholesale stores in Manhattan and set up accounts with companies like Otis Spunkmeyer, Altruda said. They also took surveys of the school to see what the other students would like to buy, she said.

The students have also learned how to take inventory, use computer databases, and print fliers.

“Everything that goes into the store, they did,” she said.

The store will mostly be open during the school’s lunch periods, about 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Altruda said.

Student shoppers will use a point system attached to their identification cards to pay for items. The point system is a positive reinforcement tool used by the school to encourage good behavior, Altruda said. Students enter the school with 100 points. Points are taken away for bad behavior and the points left can then be traded in for a reward.

“It allows them even greater positive reinforcem­ent,” she said, referring to using points at the store. “The kids live on the idea.”

Aside from cookies, cards and pencils to sell to students, the store will handle office supplies for the teachers, Altruda said. Faculty members will have to fill out a request form, and the students at the store will be responsible for stocking and distributing the supplies.

The proceeds from the store will be donated to a local charity, although the charity has not yet been selected, Altruda said.

“We’re trying to teach them to be active and positive in the community,” she added.

But the students are still reaping the biggest benefits, Altruda said. She cited one student with severe dyslexia who tried to learn to read but simply couldn’t make sense of it. That disability has hurt his confidence, Altruda said.

“He put his whole heart into this,” she said. “He will grow up and be OK because he has the self-esteem to know that he can get a job in construction or something.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch at 229-0300, Ext. 138 or by e-mail at

Updated 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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