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The aroma of fresh-baked focaccia and cookies lingers in the basement of the Chippewa building.

Students scurry around the bakery mixing batter for quiche and chopping pizza toppings, giving new life to the space that was once a nightclub.

This is the first group of students to work out of the new bakery at the Emerson School of Hospitality, the Buffalo school district’s premier career education program. Most of the students in the summer program have special needs, and are close to turning 21, when they age out of the system.

In years past, these students would have spent the end of their education careers at a separate school in a program designed to teach them life and work skills to help them become independent. But now, through a new effort at Emerson, they will have the chance to continue their education with their classmates.

“We’ve always been a school that’s inclusive of all students,” said Emerson Principal James Weimer. “They participate in the same experiences as all of the other students. That’s what’s supposed to happen.”

About 23 percent of students at Emerson have disabilities, and a broad range of academic abilities.

The new approach reflects the greater mission at Emerson, which aims to teach students professional skills they can take with them into college or the workforce. Students take classes in the culinary arts, along with their traditional high school courses.

Students also get real world experience operating a restaurant on the first floor of the school that is open to the public. They prepare all of the food, then get practice working the serving line, interacting with customers and manning the cash register. With the new bakery, the school will be able to expand its offerings.

Those may seem like minor things, but can be particularly important for students with special needs who may not go on to college, but can work in a vocational trade and become independent.

“The hope is that they can learn the skills they need to get jobs and be employable,” said Kristina Jackson, who works with the district’s Occupational Training Center. “The most important thing as they transition into adulthood is they can be independent. And that’s what they want. They want to have jobs.”

For Shawn Sdalcezskwi, 20, skills learned at Emerson this summer could translate to a viable job in the future. On one recent day he spent part of his time making quiches in the bakery. He also got a chance to interact with customers in the restaurant.

“I love it,” he said “I love making quiches, pizzas, cookies. Everything.”

email: tlankes@buffnews.com