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Bitter Sweet Café hits the sweet spot for VCAL students

The tuckshop or canteen is a key feature at most schools, but very few have their own cafĂ©. MacKillop’s Specialist School in Geelong went a step further, opening their very own student-run endeavour, the Bitter Sweet CafĂ©.

The cafĂ© menu isn’t just built around delicious food and drinks, it is designed around a range of learning outcomes. Since its doors opened in 2018, few could have imagined this innovative project would be such a success.

The cafĂ© was recognised in the 2018 VCAL (Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning) Achievement Awards, taking out the Teacher Award – Team Teaching category.

Announced by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), the café was recognised as an outstanding example of the diverse ways in which young people can be challenged and extended to achieve great learning outcomes.

The awards celebrated the achievements of young people completing VCAL qualifications and recognise the exceptional efforts of teachers and community partners who play a significant role within the VCAL Program.

The Bitter Sweet Café is part of a VCAL project aimed at supporting local students aged 12-17 who are disengaged, or at risk of disengaging from school. Students attending the school are unable to access education in a mainstream school due to a range of issues including a clinical diagnosis of depression, anxiety, autism, defiance disorder and/or challenging behaviours that make it difficult for them to focus on learning.

The café project has been made possible thanks to generous philanthropic support from the Geelong Community Foundation and the Dimmick Charitable Trust. This support means students can now gain hospitality industry skills to support their transition to future employment and training.

As part of the course, students complete their Level 1 Barista Certificate, develop safe food handling skills and learn basic food preparation. The café also enhances student numeracy, literacy, social and communication and problem-solving skills. Teamwork exercises include creating marketing material and preparing menus and budgets.

During the time the cafĂ© ran in 2018, overall student attendance improved by 20%, and all students met key individual cafĂ© responsibilities and completed VCAL’s Work Related Skills learning outcome.

Such has been the project’s success, VCAL teachers, Denise Walker and Hannah Stud, were invited to speak at a VCAL quality assurance meeting, during which the project and the school’s VCAL template was described as ‘exemplary’.

Denise said the café was an ideal launching pad for students to develop the skills and confidence necessary to gain future employment.

“We run the cafĂ© as you would a small business. We spent many months planning and researching local cafes for ideas to give students some basic insight into how to run a business, considering everything from overheads and revenue, to marketing, menu planning and pricing.”

Throughout the project, the students also learn about sustainability, recycling coffee grounds into the VCAL garden and encourage customers to bring their own reusable cups.

As for the students, their response to the café has been overwhelmingly positive, with comments including:

  • “The cafĂ© has helped me improve personally.” (Gavin)
  • “It was more successful than any of us could have imagined.” (Lachie)
  • “Working front of house helped me to develop better communication skills.” (Tamara)

“The experience has been absolutely great, especially being able to connect with people in a different way. It was nice to know I had everyone by my side to help me through my job and the day. If more schools gave them (students) an experience like this, everyone would want to go and would enjoy school a whole lot more.” (Talia)

Denise said the Geelong school couldn’t thank both the Geelong Community Foundation and the Dimmick Charitable Trust enough for providing the funding to enable the café’s ongoing success.

“We are really proud of our VCAL Program and are thrilled that our hard work and enthusiasm is being noticed by the greater VCAL community. We look forward to continuing to grow and develop our program to provide the best learning environment and experiences for all students.”