Room 201 at East Mecklenburg High School has a bed, a kitchenette, a washer and a dryer. It’s designed to feel like a studio apartment -- and to help a group of students prepare for life after high school.
East Meck is known for its International Baccalaureate magnet – that’s a demanding college-prep track – and for its culinary arts program, which gets students ready to work in restaurants and catering.
But there’s another group of students that’s smaller and less visible. They have intellectual disabilities … and they’re older than most of their classmates. Most of these students stay in public school until they’re 22.
Nathan Woolard, who’s 22, and Alexis Mitchell, who’s 20, demonstrated working in the kitchen when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools invited news media to visit the new Eagle LIFE classroom.
"We’re learning to be independent," Woolard said.
"On our own ...," Mitchell added.
"... in the world so you can learn how to make your own meal," Woolard said.
They were peeling potatoes, the first step in making mashed potatoes. Woolard says he's an accomplished cook already, and he jumped in on the interviews, asking his classmate what she likes best about the work.
"Taking the brown stuff off," Mitchell said.
All Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools teach life skills like this, but the apartment classroom is the only one in the district. Jennifer Degen, who’s in charge of East Meck’s exceptional children program, said her staff used to rely on worksheets and videos to teach practical skills.
"Our kids get very bored -- they're here eight to nine years," she said.
So when East’s culinary program moved to a new wing, Degen and her crew zeroed in on a classroom with a kitchen and asked if they could have it. They tapped alumni to donate furniture and appliances, and East Meck’s marketing classes held a contest to name the room. Eagle LIFE stands for Learning for Independent Future Experiences.
Eighteen-year-old Destini Wade demonstrated the new dryer for a gaggle of reporters this morning.
"I want to have my own apartment, then I can fold my own clothes," she said. "That way I don’t have to worry."
The mock-apartment is only part of what these students do. A lot of time they’re doing off-campus job training. They might prepare catering boxes for the nearby Community Culinary College of Charlotte, or sort over-the-counter pharmacy supplies donated to MedAssist.
Degen proudly pointed out 21-year-old Calvin Osborne, whose volunteer training at a nursing home got him a paid job, working 10 hours a week after school.
"I wash dishes, serve the trays, get ready for dinner for the residents – I actually love the residents ’cause I actually made two friends," Osborne said.
East Meck Principal Rick Parker said the root of education is showing every student you care about their future, whether they’re preparing for college or learning to make beds and fold clothes.
"And this is another testimony of how we kind of worked hard to create something special to prepare our students when they walk out of here. So I’m real proud of it," he said.
Now that the students in the transition program are getting used to their new washer and dryer, Degan said they’re working with other students to create a business plan for doing laundry for faculty and athletes.