When special education students at Crestline Elementary first started to cook in 2017, they didn’t think too much about it. But a few months into the activity, the students put on aprons that read “Cougar Cooks” and chefs hats. That’s when it all came together.

“Wow, I am a real chef,” exclaimed Cam, a student.

“(The aprons and hats) made it more concrete, more meaningful,” special education teacher Erica Lee recalls.

That’s just what Cougar Cooks does: instills pride in the students who receive special education services as they run a business selling edible treats for teachers at the school. And it garners them respect school-wide as their peers see them in action. “They’re advocating for themselves in a fun way,” Erica says. “They don’t always have the same opportunities to get involved, and this is a chance for them to shine.”ty

Students in all grades K-6 of varying levels of ability participate in the cooking club in different ways. “When they get to share about it with their peers, it’s their job,” speech-language pathologist Elizabeth Gwaltney says. “It’s fascinating to see the other students’ response to all they’re responsible for.”

Each month Betsy, the director of marketing, presents the Cougar Cooks treat of the month on the daily school news broadcast to entice the teachers to buy it. Before she made her broadcast debut, though, she wouldn’t even raise her hand in class to answer questions. That changed when she went on camera. Since then kids who her mom doesn’t even know greet Betsy by name when they are out in the community, and when her mom asks how she knows them, Betsy promptly replies, “Oh because they saw me on broadcast.” “It’s something she’s really proud of,” Erica says.

Fourth grader Betsy serves as encourager of the team and reads aloud the recipes, specially written with highly contrasted picture symbols that help with comprehension. As a part of her marketing role, she also talks to general education classes about what Cougar Cooks does, the jobs different cooks have, and how it’s helped her understand other kids with special needs, especially since she doesn’t interact with those students in many other contexts.

Other Cougar Cooks team members have different jobs assigned according to their needs and schedules. Bond, the warehouse manager, is responsible for getting a large bowl from the lunch room, and he has learned to go in and greet the lunchroom manager by name and request the bowl, without prompts he needed before. “It’s neat how the students have each found their niche,” special education teacher Sherri Rodgers says.

“For a lot of the students, the older they get and the more challenges they have, the less inclusive it can be for them because of different demands in the classroom, but this has given them an opportunity to be present with their peers and to showcase their abilities, which has really been amazing,” says Lauren Anson, another special education teacher.

Each month the Cougar Cooks team follows the same procedure. They decide together what treat to feature after the teachers have Pinterested ideas for ones with simple preparation, and then they vote on the name. Teachers and staff at Crestline Elementary and the Mountain Brook Board of Education can order the treat with a form in the front office over the course of a week and put in $1 for each one they order. After orders come in, it’s time to count money and orders and buy the materials for that number of treats. They typically receive between 30 and 80 orders each time.

From there they enter information into the computer, make labels, count money, follow a checklist and more—all real-life skills that are also teaching academic, life skill, social interaction and communication goals. Tasks like typing, writing, cutting, opening bags, tying bows, stapling, hole punching and putting paper clips on papers also help the students work toward occupational therapy skills too. Best of all, it’s engaging.

Lauren recalls how her students Cam and Emily had struggled to focus on counting money in the past when they had fake dollars and coins in their hands. “But as soon as we started doing it for Cougar Cooks, they were all about counting the money and became super engaged,” she says. “Then the teachers who knew that would start giving different forms of change on purpose. Having a purpose for them helps their academics and social skills too.”

And then, of course, there is the cooking itself. Some recipes require actual cooking, but mostly they favor dump-and-mix-type recipes for trail mix or no-bake bars where they can focus on goals like following directions. Teachers’ favorites have been Peppermint Popcorn and Peanut Butter Energy Bars, while the kids favored the Sprinkle Cookies where they got to put tons of sprinkles on sugar cookies. Each fall and spring they vote on ingredients for a special trail mix treat.

Perhaps the most exciting, and sometimes most nerve-wrecking day, comes when it’s time to make deliveries. When one student last year knew it was delivery day, his whole face lit up, and his desire to communicate and willingness to participate escalated unlike any other day. “It truly did motivate him,” Lauren says. The cooks deliver directly to teachers in person whenever possible so they can also practice social interaction in that way. Each student greets the teacher with a phrase like “Special delivery” or “Thank you for supporting Cougar Cooks!”—a script they have learned to say.

Cougar Cooks now has an official page in the yearbook and a cookbook—a booklet the teachers made for their students’ moms on Mother’s Day last year. Chief of all though, through Cougar Cooks these students share their abilities and talents in a fun, meaningful way while also serving the school. And the students take their responsibilities seriously. Many of them will ask their parents not to schedule doctor’s appointments on days when they have Cougar Cooks responsibilities. “They look forward to it. It’s a happy day to come to school,” Erica says.

Cougar Energy Bars

A Teachers’ Favorite from Cougar Cooks

  • 2 cups dry oats
  • 1 cup coconut flakes
  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup ground flax seeds
  • ¾ cup chocolate chips
  • 2/3 cup honey
  • ½ Tablespoon vanilla

Stir all ingredients well. Press into a 9×13-inch pan. Freeze for two hours. Cut into bars. Bars are best if kept refrigerated.