Manhattan Star Academy found a star in Joe Germanotta, father of Lady Gaga, who owns Joanne Trattoria on West 68th Street.
The Upper West Side school for students with developmental and speech delays, autism spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopmental disabilities, introduced a transition program this year, to teach students life skills to help them succeed once they graduate.
Jaime Morsony, Manhattan Star’s transition assistant, has already approached approximately 20 businesses in her Upper West Side neighborhood to ask if they wanted to participate, and met with resistance. That was until she connected with Germanotta, also her neighbor, who was the only one who gladly signed on.
“It was the first place within the community that was open to working with us and our children,” Morsony said. “Unfortunately, people haven’t been so open and welcoming.”
The students report to Joanne’s every Thursday for one hour and Germanotta is consistently impressed with their professionalism and diligence.
“The school does a great job of teaching the students how to address people when they arrive, how to get ready for work,” he said. “They are putting on gloves, hanging up their coats, saying good morning to everyone. And then rolling up their sleeves and getting to work.”
He detailed the jobs the teens, who are 13 and above, are tasked with, which include polishing silverware, making napkin rollups, sweeping and setting the tables.
In the future, Germanotta hopes to see the children again, as potential employees. “I’m hopeful that after a few years, after these kids graduate, if they want to come back, we can set them up with a part-time assignment a couple days a week,” he said.
“I already suspect in my heart that Jordan’s [16-year-old Manhattan Star student] going to have his first job at Joanne’s,” Morsony added.
“I’m sure he will,” said Germanotta.
Tell us about Manhattan Star Academy and what the criteria are for students to enroll there.
Morsony: Every student that we have has an IEP, an individualized education plan. A lot of our students, they, for one reason or another, don’t receive the proper services through the Department of Education. So there is a process that families go through in order to bring their children to a school like ours. We’re a very small school; we’re growing. Right now, we are chartered from preschool to age 21. Our oldest students right now are 16. It’s still a really exciting time because of our growth. We’re looking at new buildings to expand in the next few years.
Explain the transition program there.
Morsony: The transition program is new. It’s about teaching our kids life skills that will benefit them and set them up for success when they leave us. We have some internships in school for students that maybe aren’t quite yet ready to go out into the community.
What has the response been like from other businesses when you asked them if they’d like to become involved?
Morsony: It’s been a little challenging and a little frustrating. Two very familiar names, big businesses ... one said there was too much bureaucratic red tape to go through and the other one told us we would be a liability. It’s just upsetting, especially in a neighborhood like ours. I’ve lived here for a really long time and I’m a little let down. My supervisor makes jokes like, “There’s going to be no businesses that you want to go into anymore.” For that reason, Joanne’s is so special to us.
Germanotta: I think “It’s a liability” is an excuse. First off, they’re supervised and they’re not doing anything more than straightening up. They’re not running up and down stairs, not carrying large items. We don’t even let them polish glasses for that reason, because they could stick their hand in a wine glass and get cut. I think that’s an excuse. You have to give back to the community that we live in here.
How are the students reacting to the work?
Morsony: Our students who in school need a lot of support with academics or staying on task, with the program, after a week or two into it, they don’t even need me. Once I go over it the first two times, they need zero assistance. It’s just beautiful to see that we change the setting and bring them there, how they can reach independence. As they’re growing up, people around them, their families, schools, everybody is really protective of them and it’s almost like they’re not always given the chance to thrive.
What jobs have you given the students at your restaurant?
Germanotta: Some of the tasks that we have given them to do include polishing silverware, making napkin rollups, setting the tables, wiping down the tables, making sure the glasses don’t need to be touched up. Some of them like cleaning and organizing, and we have electronic menu tablets, so one of them will be responsible for wiping them down and putting them in the chargers so they’re ready for the shifts. Another of the students likes to sweep and clean up, so he takes the broom and the dustpan, and he runs around the restaurant and gives it a touch up. Maybe they’re never going to be able to sit down at a desk and use a computer, but we can teach them things that they can use to make a living someday in the future. I will say this, all of them are eager to learn.
How is your staff responding to working with the students?
Germanotta: They love it. The students love Yasmin, one of my waitresses and then Amir, he has three children of his own, so he understands how to work with kids. I thought initially I would get some pushback, because I’m asking them to come in 30 minutes earlier. What’s nice is now they’re asking, “Hey, are the kids coming tomorrow?” Because then they know they don’t have to set the tables that night.
What are your future plans for the program?
Morsony: The whole program is being revamped. And Mr. G doesn’t even know this, but starting in September, we’re going to have a three-hour allotment, now it’s just an hour.