NEW PORT RICHEY - For John Sousa's students, there is a steady rhythm to the day that begins with a shared breakfast in the J.W. Mitchell High School cafeteria.
When it’s time to wrap up, Sousa simply walks to the back of the cafeteria, opens a custodian's closet and begins wheeling out a dozen or so blue recycling barrels.
The sound of wheels rolling across the shiny floor provides an auditory cue — like punching a time clock for these students with special needs.
“That’s all I have to do. I don’t even have to tell them what to do,” Sousa said with a broadening smile. “They know it’s time to get to work.”
On a recent morning, during a busy passing period between classes, James Randolph led the blue barrel brigade as they made their way to their assigned task — collecting recyclables from classrooms in the 700 building. Working with him were classmates Jessica Brown, Nikolas Resina, Alicia Gonzalez, Samantha Gedymin and Richard Klepatski, who was towing a barrel that had been adapted to roll behind his wheelchair. Providing guidance were Sousa and assistants Robert Grimm and Deb Plotkin.
The tasks are purposefully rudimentary and repetitious.
Place one blue “buddy” recycling barrel next to the brown “trash” barrels that have already been set out by the custodial staff. Paper goes in one blue barrel, cans and plastic bottles in another. Be sure to remove the caps first — something Jessica is especially diligent in doing.
These duties, though repetitive, can be soothing for those with autism, said Sousa.
"It also creates independence in that they learn they can do things by themselves," he said.
In turn, that could spark interest or an affinity that might lead to assisted employment.
And that would be an important step for those who are able, said Sousa, a teacher for 33 years, the last three as a transition teacher at Mitchell.
His kids age out of the program at 22. He has a short window to figure out their next step while teaching students basic skills, typically in a self-contained classroom equipped with a kitchen for Friday cooking lessons and a washer and dryer, so they can learn how to launder their own clothes.
What comes next is based on their evaluated needs and skills, as well as available resources in the local community. Some students will move on to programs for adults with special needs, supported employment or into an assisted living program.
“My students have a variety of issues. Some are prone to seizures. Some are on the autism spectrum. My job is to find out what they do best and what makes them happy,” said Sousa. "My kids are not going to college. They may not leave home."
He works with agencies such as the Red Apple School, A.F.I.R.E of Pasco, Inc., The Arc Suncoast, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation as well as with local businesses like Publix.
Sousa ramped up the classroom recycling project to raise student awareness about the importance of being good stewards of the planet, but also to shine a spotlight on the ESE community.
He sought to inspire students with a classroom viewing of “A Plastic Ocean,” a documentary created by Australian journalist Craig Leeson. He also took Mitchell ESE students on a field trip to STR Scrap Metal in Port Richey, where they toured the facility and could see the next step for the cans and other items they collect.
"Oh my gosh, this is awesome," said Eva D'Piazza, a fellow teacher of ESE students at Mitchell, who accompanied her students on the field trip. "We like the kids to understand the process of what they are doing with this job — this project. It makes them more aware of the importance of what they are doing."
Sousa's leadership has brought welcome attention, D'Piazza noted.
Pasco County school district staff recorded a video of students in action that can be seen on YouTube. Inquiries came in from art teachers at other schools, who wanted recycled materials for student art projects. Students in the Mitchell High Ecology Club and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes have come on board to help out.
With that came an unexpected element of inclusion for students who spend much of their school day in the self-contained classroom.
“This led to some students sitting at lunch with students and becoming more social with our population,” Sousa said. "Some of our kids are stand-offish, and it's bringing them out of their shells a bit."
“The word's getting out," Sousa said of the recycling project. "It’s been good.”
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.