A colorful diner opened for business at 2300 Green Bay Road – Kingsley Elementary School –– the week of May 21-25. Kindergarten teacher Randy Heite and his students opened for its 16th year the lively and cheerfully noisy classroom diner, decked out with checkered tablecloths, banners and posters, red plastic sandwich baskets and white-aproned personnel. Initially developed as a modest interdisciplinary kindergarten unit in which reading and writing were employed in real-life situations, it has become an expansive and tasty tradition, richly layered with a host of developmentally relevant experiences for Mr. Heite’s students. It also provides healthy lunch options for the Room 101 Diner’s patrons.

Monday through Thursday, Room 101 Diner patrons – parents, teachers and other Kingsley students – were greeted by an official kindergarten host wearing a white apron and a hand-silkscreened white-and -red 101 Diner T-shirt. Within seconds of a guest’s being shown to a table, at least one uniformed waiter appeared to distribute student-made menus and recite the menu options. Organic products, donated by Whole Foods, were the fare: Applegate all-beef organic hot dogs served on organic buns, organic baby carrots, cheddar crackers, and organic ice cream sodas, root beer floats or sodas made from organic juices and seltzer water. During the four days of operation, some 500 hot dogs were consumed, with more than 500 patrons visiting the diner.

“I was thrilled that Whole Foods donated most all of the food this year,” said Mr. Heite. “Customers were encouraged to donate the cost of the food (hot dog sandwiches were priced at $1.50) or more if they could, in order for all of the kids to participate, but donations weren’t required.” After subtracting overhead expenses, Mr Heite said, $960 was earmarked for charity donations from the kindergarten enterprise.

Mr. Heite noted that when he began teaching in the mid 1990s, he was inspired by the whole-language philosophy of education prevalent then. The diner project was a chance for students to use a variety of literacy and math skills in a real-life experience he has expanded and tweaked over the years.

Michelle Grill, mother of kindergartener Amy, was a volunteer kitchen “runner” in the diner and clearly a fan of the project. “The diner brought together so many things, so many areas of learning. Students learned about healthy food choices, and they even discussed whether they wanted to be organized as a corporation or a co-op. It was fantastic,” she said.

“This year the diner ran as a cooperative,” said Mr. Heite. “Kids learned about the seven principles of a co-op, and a lot of those principles are ones that I want to incorporate into my classroom anyway, such as democratic decision-making, participation by everyone, education and training for members, and concern for the community. For example, in the Diner project,” he said, “we voted on things by using a secret ballot, and [we] are connecting to charities that have made grants to schools for things like providing school supplies to needy students.”

In the process of opening Room 101 Diner, students did a lot of preparation. They read job descriptions for all of the “available positions” at the diner: hosts, waiters, soda jerks, chip crew, bus boys and girls, cooks and cashiers. The next step was filling out job applications in their best kindergarten penmanship, required by the diner manager, Mr. Heite. From the job applications posted on the diner’s walls, patrons could see that some of the job qualifications listed were being able “to pour without spilling drinks,” “to say hello nicely and be polite,” and “to write words and be friendly.”

Other preparation included the class field trip to Whole Foods South, where students were taken on a tour, learned the meaning of “organic” and practiced reading food labels. Bridget Isara, marketing director at the South Evanston Whole Foods store, said that after discovering how much sugar is in an average can of soda pop, students decided to make and sell their own carbonated, healthier drinks of seltzer water and organic juices.

A significant part of the project, said Mr. Heite, was his 22 students’ involvement in making gifts to charity. “Because Whole Foods was our helper in this, the students and I thought a lot of the money we raised should go to their charities, the Whole Planet Foundation and the Whole Kids Foundation. One of our principles of a cooperative said we should work to make our communities better, and the Whole Foods charities are focused on that, too.”

The Whole Planet Foundation makes small microloans to individuals starting modest businesses worldwide. The Whole Kids Foundation targets childhood obesity through better nutrition. Of the 1,000 grants it gives to schools developing gardens, five have gone to Evanston schools.

“The other foundation we are supporting is Kiva,” said Mr. Heite. It, like Whole Planet, is a not-for-profit organization with a mission to alleviate poverty by creating business opportunities through $25 loans. The kindergarteners will select the business projects they like best and designate their money for those loans. “The kids won’t lose control by giving money to Kiva, and they’ll be able to donate the money to another family as the first loans are repaid. There is a repayment rate of more than 98 percent from Kiva borrowers,” he explained.

After the diner closed, students learned there was still more to do – money to sort and count, reports to write and a final group reflection. As to what the kindergartners learned: One girl said she learned how to tie an apron. A boy said he had been afraid to be a waiter when serving older kids in the school but learned it was not really scary after all. Another student admitted she thought it was really fun to be a waiter, but on the last day she learned being a waiter was very tiring.

One of the many positive things about the Diner project is that these 2012 kindergarten students will be able to return to Room 101 next year to have lunch – and see what their former teacher has done to make the diner even spiffier.

If they order one of the famous milkshakes (chocolate outsells vanilla and strawberry), they know it will be whipped up in Mr. Heite’s old-fashioned 5-shake blue machine, donated by their teacher’s father years ago. The machine was rescued from a dumpster behind the old Walgreens store in downtown Evanston after the store removed its food counter. One of Mr. Heite’s students’ parents rebuilt the broken machine over summer vacation and returned it with a larger vacuum-cleaner motor that makes amazing milkshakes.

“I couldn’t do this project without parents,” Mr. Heite said. “Couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t. They help with everything.” If history repeats itself, they will be helping in large numbers again next year.

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....