Innovative Program Provides Students with Real-World Experience at Donatelli's

Fifth-grade students gain real-world experience when they take over Donatelli’s restaurant.
A Willow Lane student stays busy in the Donatelli's kitchen.

This spring will mark the fifth year that Willow Lane Elementary School fifth-graders will don chef pants and courteous smiles in preparation to take over Donatelli’s restaurant in White Bear Lake. Through a unique partnership between Willow Lane educators and owners and staff of Donatelli’s, young people are provided a real-world, education-packed workday that also includes having a ton of fun.
Leigh Anderson, who teaches learning skills at Willow Lane, first dreamed of this concept while brainstorming ways to teach students to write persuasive essays as part of her curriculum. She considered a cover letter. Then it struck her: Wouldn’t it great to have students write real resumes and cover letters and apply for actual jobs?

So Anderson went door to door, asking business owners to collaborate on a project allowing students to work at a real business for a day. Trish Appleby, co-owner of Donatelli’s (which has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives), welcomed the idea.

Appleby was intrigued because she often encounters new hires who have no idea they have to work for a paycheck. “This opportunity gives kids a real-life example of how to earn a living,” says Appleby.
The initial project involved only 15 students from St. Andrew’s Academy, where Anderson once worked; when Anderson moved to Willow Lane, she wondered how the program could possibly accommodate up to 60 students. But Appleby’s staunch support of the concept compelled her to generously offer additional days for Willow Lane fifth-graders to work at Donatelli’s. The program now has five days of kids performing four different jobs at Donatelli’s: manager, cook, host or server.

But before students ever step foot into the working world, Appleby visits their classrooms. She explains how a business works and how to apply for a job. Teachers then give instructions about how to write a resume and cover letter, and students polish their work until they have professional quality documents.
Anderson and other Willow Lane teachers then teach kids how to interview. They act out different scenarios. In one scenario, Anderson will dress up and be attentive. In another scenario, she might wear sweatpants, chew gum and answer a cell phone during the interview. “We try to demonstrate the importance of being respectful, making eye contact, shaking hands and smiling,” says Anderson.
Each child applies and interviews for one of the four available positions. Once placed in those positions, students then receive an hour of job training at school provided by Donatelli’s staff. “The idea is for the first group of trained students to train the next group and so on,” Anderson says.
On the big day, when students go to work at Donatelli’s, they are matched with a Donatelli’s employee to provide assistance. “But they don’t require much help,” Anderson says. “About an hour into their shifts, the kids are practically running the restaurant.”
The students always experience a jam-packed day of serving pizza and pasta at Donatelli’s because the community is very supportive of the event. Donatelli’s promotes the event on their Facebook page and website about a month ahead of time. “Customers really look forward to it,” says Anderson. Students also do lots of classroom writing beforehand, inviting friends, family members and important people in the community. “Our district superintendent comes every time,” says Anderson. “The kids have also served lunch to the head of the Minnesota Department of Education, Governor Dayton and Senator Franken.”
Sixth-grader Patrick Glavan worked as a waiter at Donatelli’s during last year’s takeover and had the pleasure of serving lunch to Franken. “I never thought I’d meet someone like him,” says Patrick. “And I never thought I’d be serving him lunch. That was a big deal.”
Patrick notes the most difficult part of being a waiter is remembering who ordered what, and being sure to give customers the correct bill. “I also learned what a resume is and how to speak well in front of people,” he says. “But mostly, it was a lot of fun and we got to eat some Donatelli’s pizza while we were there.”