Last winter, relations between Denton merchants and students from Central Valley Middle School, who often hang out on 7th Street after class, were not exactly rosy.

In fact, in mid-January, an altercation between a classmate and a neighborhood merchant resulted in the store’s owners banning all Central Valley students from the shop.

“The incident caused a lot of tension and certain perceptions about the kids”, says Michael Richards, an eighth-grade instructor at the school, located at 223 Stone St. “The kids felt like the neighborhood was a hostile environment.”

But thanks to some creative thinking on Richards’ part, 7th Street has re-extended the welcome mat.

A year later the clash in January Richards came up with a program that would allow the 20 students in his Unified Arts class to work alongside 7th Street merchants. He figured that by working in the shops, the kids would not only acquire some on-the-job training but “learn to deal with people in an effective, positive way.”

During the first few months of school, Richards spent most of his free time, including Saturdays and after-school and lunch hours, getting the project off the ground.

And by November, 11 merchants had agreed to participate: Human Friends, Mama’s Pie, Cotton Goods, The Star, Flowers for Juliette, Fresh Vegetables Company, Erin Imports, Scents and Tastes, Change the World, Unicorns and Bats, and Eternal Words.

For the five days in December, Richards’ students ventured out of the classroom and into the workplace, where they learned to operate a cash register, wait on customers, arrange window displays, stock shelves, and sort and price merchandise.

“I learned how to use the price gun and how to help people,” reports eighth-grader Steven Walsh, who worked at Fresh Vegetables Company. “I also learned that when you put the eggs on the shelf, you put the older eggs in front and the newer ones in back. Fresh Vegetables even gave me an ice cream bar after I was done working.”

While Steven stocked eggs and ate ice cream, teacher Richards spent the 50-minute class periods delivering students to their jobs and accompanying them on errands for shop owners.