NEW PORT RICHEY
Devon Dowell stood at the front of Calusa Elementary School's cafeteria line, arms crossed, admonishing children to chill while waiting for their food.
"Please wait," Dowell told a boy who pushed forward. He pointed at a couple of other antsy kids. "Please stay in line."
The second-graders listened, at least for the moment, and settled down until it was their turn to grab a plate of chicken, mashed potatoes and broccoli. They understood that Devon and his Advanced Community Preparation classmates dressed in blue shirts and black slacks had a job to do.
"We have helpers sometimes," second-grader Jason Smith said between licks of his ice cream. "They're nice."
"They're really good," added second-grader Phoenix McCracken.
Marchman Education Center has long provided job skills training to high school graduates with special needs. The 18- to 22-year-olds learn about traits such as promptness, courtesy and independence, as well as specific tasks they might perform for an employer.
The students have had volunteer jobs in the community before. But this is the first year they've partnered with Calusa Elementary, which sits directly across the street from Marchman.
At first they started small, with just one or two teens doing custodial work. Before long, though, the school welcomed morning and afternoon shifts of six to eight students who help out in the media center and cafeteria, and also with the maintenance team.
"I can't imagine running the school without them at this point," Calusa principal Kara Merlin said, heaping praise upon the students. "I am so impressed with the way it is working."
Cafeteria manager Rovita Spalding called the partnership "wonderful," and had only good things to say about the Marchman students.
"It's great to work with them," Spalding said. "They have such great personalities. They learn quickly. We have a good time with them."
Dowell, 19, said he tried other jobs while attending Ridgewood High. He put working at Calusa near the top of his list.
"Working with the kids is great," he said.
Jacenia Zeno, 21, expressed hope that her work at the elementary school might translate into a job at a day care, preschool or other opportunity with children.
"Ever since I was in third grade I wanted to do something to work with the kids," said Zeno, who completed Clearwater High before coming to Marchman.
In the school cafeteria, she kept the children in a line against the wall and moving toward Dowell. Sometimes she had little to do, when the line emptied. Other times, she had her hands full.
"They talk to me just like they would talk to their friends. ... I could do this all day," Zeno said, adding that she liked even better preparing breakfast bags or pizza lunch packages. "If you like doing what you do, it doesn't seem like a lot."
Krista Trant, 19, preferred the quiet of the media center, where she kept busy shelving books and organizing materials.
"All the books need to be organized," said the Ridgewood High graduate, who hopes to get some type of job that keeps her hands occupied. "Everything has to be neat and perfect."
Marchman teacher Ann Rapp said she spends a lot of time with each student to learn his or her strengths, so she can steer them toward a job with a good chance for success. She and others help with the application process, but students must interview and win positions independently.
At the same time, Rapp said, she ensures that students receive cross training, so they have many skills available to them.
"We don't always get the jobs we want," she observed.
With the job market particularly tight these days, Rapp was pleased to have her students in contact with Calusa, which is part of Pasco County's largest employer. The students work side-by-side with district employees, who can see for themselves whether any would make a good hire.
One student recently made the transition from the program to a food service job at Moon Lake Elementary. Others hope to make similar moves when they're ready.
"I'm a hard worker," said Brian Dunning, 18, a Mitchell High graduate who volunteers for double shifts at Calusa to keep himself busy. "I really want to work hard."
The Calusa connection aims to make that desire a reality.
"We're working in the kitchen. We're working in the cafeteria," Rapp said. "The goal is for them to be employed."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.