1. Education

Woodlawn Community Academy's special needs students learn skills in tiny store

Allison Tremblay, 19, uses an iPad to ring up a Swanky Swine customer at Clearwater’s Woodlawn Community Academy this month.
Published Apr. 16, 2013

CLEARWATER — The Swanky Swine was open for business.

Customers in line held their dollars while perusing the merchandise. They watched as workers tallied up the sales and counted back change.

Some of the shoppers bought a candy bar or bag of chips. Others were ready to guzzle a Swanky Swale, the store's premier beverage made of pink lemonade and Sprite.

In between transactions, the employees, all special needs students enrolled in the transitions program at the private Woodlawn Community Academy, talked about their inventory.

"We've sold a lot of hot chocolate,'' said Logan Barham, 19.

They also talked about what they plan to do with their profit.

"This will warm your heart,'' said Marlena Williams, 17. "We're donating some of the money we make to an orphanage in Thailand.''

And they showed teamwork.

"We need to help each other out when we work the cash register,'' said Dimitri Tyner, 16.

Finding a job after graduation is a challenge for everyone, but it is even more daunting for the 10 high school students enrolled in the transitions program at Woodlawn, said program director Jennifer Tollefson.

Tollefson's students, ages 15 to 21, have disabilities including autism, Asperger's syndrome and Down syndrome. They are all on track to receive a special diploma instead of a standard one.

The transitions program teaches valuable lessons like counting money, budgeting and cooking. To help students make a transition to the workforce, Tollefson started the Swanky Swine store at the school, named for a pink piggy bank used in math class.

"There's not really a lot of options once these kids leave high school unless we are really intentional with job skills," said Tollefson, 34.

She began with simple lessons in math, creating exercises to help the students learn how to count change. "I realized they needed to learn how to count mixed coins, and that took a while,'' she said.

Eventually, she taught them about budgeting. "I'd ask them to work out a problem like, you have this amount of money to buy groceries. What would you buy?'' she said.

And finally, she had them put together the merchandise to sell in Swanky Swine.

"We have different students do different tasks each day. Some restock when the store opens, while others work as cashiers. They take turns,'' she said.

For now, the Swanky Swine store is tiny, offering snacks and beverages to the school's 95 K-12 students. It is open on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. However, in the near future, Tollefson aims to take it up a notch.

"Depending on funding, we'd like to add to Swanky Swine a program like a catering business,'' said Tollefson, who previously worked in nonprofit administration in Chattanooga and holds a master's degree in business from the University of Tennessee. "Maybe we could do something like making box lunches for other private schools who don't have a lunch program.''

Tollefson began working at the school last fall at the urging of her mother, Charlotte Tollefson, the school administrator. Charlotte had special inspiration for her work with special needs students: her son Kevin, 33, who has severe Asperger's syndrome and still lives at home.

"It was Kevin who led me down this path,'' Charlotte said.

The annual tuition for Woodlawn Community Academy, located on Woodlawn Street in south Clearwater, starts at $7,700, although additional fees are applied depending on individual programs.

Most of the special needs students, who make up about 70 percent of the student body, receive the McKay Scholarship, a government program to help special needs students pay tuition at private schools.

"Whether you're regular education, you're gifted or you have special needs, here you are able to work at your individual level,'' said Charlotte, 55.

After he sold several cups of hot chocolate, Logan Barham talked about what he's learned from working in Swanky Swine.

"Before, I had trouble counting change, and the way (Swanky Swine) is set up, you actually learn how to make change by giving it out. I was not good at it before,'' he said.

Lexie Palermo, 18, believes Swanky Swine has spurred her creativity. "We think about what we want in the store. It's taught us how to think of ideas.''

Piper Castillo can be reached at


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