How an Anchorage school is using ‘Frito pies’ to teach job skills to special-ed students

Service High School student Kameron Matthews took orders from behind a metal cash box Friday afternoon and directed his customers to the "Frito Pie Friday" fare.

For a few dollars, the school's students and staff could order a standard Frito pie — a base of corn chips topped with a generous heap of steaming chili and melted cheese — or the Frito Pie Supreme, which comes with extras: sour cream, jalapenos and green onions, he explained.

Matthews calculated the change for customers in the South Anchorage classroom that afternoon as other students handed out the food or dished out the chili and cheese. As they worked together, they smiled and laughed, calling out for customers to have a good day.

It was just what special education teacher Bobbi Menzel had hoped it would be. She and a teaching team created the classroom-based business last year to help students in their special education program with job and social skills.

"We've seen a lot of growth in these kids," she said.

The Frito pie business started at Service High School in December. Now, there are sales every other Friday during lunch.

Menzel's team set up the business for students in the school's "Structured Learning Classroom," a special education program focused on teaching students communication and social skills. Many of the students enrolled in the program are on the autism spectrum, she said.

She said the team wanted to create a more real-world job setting for them to learn in.

"We thought it would be something that was super easy — chips are easy, chili is easy and cheese is easy," Menzel said.

Early on, the teaching team shouldered most of the food preparation work, allowing students to concentrate on interacting with customers when they delivered Frito pies to high school staff members, she said.

Back then, adults would escort students on deliveries and provide immediate feedback on how to communicate with customers.

"We focused just on customer service, like saying hello and being polite," Menzel said.

She said sometimes that meant adding a "thank you" or a "please" or increasing eye contact. Sometimes it meant teaching students how to work together, or that if they weren't polite, they would have to issue their customers a refund.

"If something didn't go right and (a student) had a meltdown, at least we would be able to work with it here rather than them going out to a job and getting fired," Menzel said.

Menzel said she watched students gain confidence as they walked through the school and talked to teachers. She hoped the business also helped combat any stereotypes people might have about students on the autism spectrum.

"I think a lot of times you hear the word 'autism' and you think behaviors and meltdowns," she said.

She wanted people to know, "Our kids can function and do an awesome job and be a part of the community."

The students used the money earned last school year to buy more corn chips, chili and cheese. They also put the money toward a food handling course so about 20 of them could get their food handler card through the Municipality of Anchorage, required for employees who work with unpackaged food.

This year, Frito Pie Friday has now become largely student run, Menzel said, and has grown to offer more items like the Frito Pie Supreme, as well as an option with vegetarian chili. The students still make deliveries, but without a teacher escort. Some of students also stay in the classroom to sell the food directly to their peers.

"I think it tastes good," said first-time customer Benedict Palma, a 14-year-old freshman, Friday afternoon.

"If I could have one a day, it would be awesome," English teacher Brandon Hipsak said about the chili-cheese-chip combo.

The business has grown to involve more students, pulling workers from a pre-vocational class Menzel started this year for students both in the special education program and outside of it.

In the class, the students learn about resumes and applying for jobs. They also do inventory for the Frito pie business, Menzel said.

Sandra Beattie, a speech language pathologist at the school, said Frito Pie Friday has become an event students want to join and something that motivates them to work hard so they can participate.

"It's been so exciting to watch," she said. "This has become the cool thing to be part of."

Matthews, one of Friday's cashiers, said the Frito pie business had made an impact on him.

"It's taught me a few social skills that I need to learn. I don't know how to really describe them, but I think it's just greeting people," he said. "It's also taught me some integrity and some lessons I need to learn in life, like how to keep a smile on your face even if you don't like the person or even if customers are kind of rude."

Matthews totaled up Friday's earnings after the students sold dozens of Frito pies. They made just over $170.

The students plan to use the money to buy more supplies and to send more people to the food handler class. They'll donate the rest to charity, he said.

Matthews helped pack up the money box and went his next class. He'll make the brief transition to businessman again in two weeks for the next day of sales.