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Laid off, school media specialist brews new beginning in Dade City coffee shop

DADE CITY — Leslie Monticco heads to the small kitchen of the Coffee Mug Cafe on Meridian Avenue to supervise her 15-year-old daughter, Anna, who's making sandwiches for a take-out order.

The door opens, a customer walks in.

Monticco presses the button on a CD player, starting up mellow background music she had paused when the last customer left a few minutes earlier. Then she walks over.

"What can I get you?" Monticco asks. "How about a menu?"

The woman responds that she's waiting on friends, but an iced coffee would be nice.

Monticco smiles and nods, and starts back to the kitchen to prepare the drink. As the new cafe owner, she understands that customer satisfaction is key to keeping them coming back.

Just a month ago, that wasn't her concern.

She was planning programs and deciding what books to add to the media center at New River Elementary School.

Then the layoffs came.

With just three years in the Pasco school system, Monticco lost her job to someone with more seniority as the School Board scaled back the numbers of elementary school media specialists.

Rather than wait for a new district position to arise, she decided instead to pursue her dream.

"For years, I said I wanted a little coffee shop like the one in Dade City," she said, comparing it favorably to an old haunt on the main square of her hometown of Medina, Ohio. "I found out my position was eliminated in May. I signed on June 1."

She got an offer later at Veterans Elementary, but she had already made up her mind.

"I will miss seeing some of the kids," said Monticco, a 41-year-old married mother of four who worked in banking before becoming a teacher. "The kids, and the friends I made at school."

She loved helping students improve their reading skills. She understood that her time with some children represented the only time they got to visit a library.

But the district's cuts to media centers, amid budget shortfalls in the millions, made her feel like her work was not valued — a view she had been sensing even before the district started shedding jobs.

The layoff simply cemented her decision to head in a new direction.

"I guess you could say I was ready," Monticco said.

Her friend and sometimes helper, Donna Shoen, who retired as New River's literacy coach in June, understood. She offered her full support for the idea, and now volunteers in the cafe, helping with everything from serving to learning the ins and outs of new menu items.

"In the beginning I thought, that's a great adventure," Shoen said, noting that Monticco first toyed with the idea of leaving education to buy the cafe in December, well before the layoffs. "Then she put it away. But as the crunch grew and she knew perhaps her job was in jeopardy, she came and asked me, 'What do you think?' "

She told Monticco to go for it.

"This was God's path for Leslie," Shoen said. "Everything fell into place for her."

Anna Monticco, who will be a sophomore at Wesley Chapel High, agreed. She called her mom's move "kind of cool" and said she likes to help out at the cafe whenever possible.

There's still much work to be done.

The menu remains a work in progress, as Monticco learns what types of items her customers prefer.

"I never knew how to make Cuban toast," she said, laughing. "Now I can make Cuban toast like crazy. That's the beauty of it (the menu) being a chalk board."

She's also looking for more ways to incorporate the cafe into the life of downtown Dade City. She hopes to have book clubs meet there, to host a community book stop and find incentives to lure more people in.

She particularly would like to attract students and teachers before and after school, as well as amp up her business with the lunchtime crowd from the courthouse and surrounding shops.

"We want this to be a place for people to come," she said, adding that the regulars already have begun to turn up.

That means longer hours than before — work often begins with early morning baking. It means doing without the family's usual summer vacation, as much of the money goes into equipment and supplies.

It also means the need for more comfortable shoes. Monticco recently bought a new pair of thick-soled black Skechers sneakers to cope with the long days on her feet.

But the response is good, even in the first few weeks. Customers have been complimenting the drinks and sandwiches. They come in and shoot the breeze.

It's like her own local version of Cheers, only with coffee, Monticco said.

She has only respect and well wishes for those who remain in the school system.

"I realized in three years how much teachers work and how much dedication it takes," Monticco said. "They haven't been given raises in I don't know how long. To be a teacher, you truly have to love what you are doing. Right now with the economy, it's a tough position to be in. … I hope it turns around."

As far as she's concerned, though, her time working in schools is over.

"I love to bake. I love to cook," Monticco said. "I still can't believe I'm here."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Laid off, school media specialist brews new beginning in Dade City coffee shop 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 1:14pm]
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