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DECATUR – One of the buses delivering students to Thomas Jefferson Middle School was running late on Tuesday, and so was Adam Hunt.

He sprinted into the Life Skills kitchen, his hair in disarray, and breathlessly announced to everyone in the room, “I'm late to work!”

The seventh-grader is a barista in the class' coffee shop, which operates Tuesdays and Thursdays making and delivering coffee, tea and hot chocolate throughout the building.

A big dry-erase board above the coffee preparation area has a long and complicated list of orders by teachers' names and room numbers, and students hustle to get orders ready and properly labeled, overseen by teaching assistants. Two other students serve as “runners,” who load the orders on a cart and personally deliver the drinks.

“We say, 'Have a good day' and, 'Here's your drink,'” Adam said, after he had combed his hair and caught his breath. He's one of the most experienced at the coffee shop, having first served as a runner before graduating to barista.

Life Skills students learn skills in several areas, said their teacher, Jenny Schneider, such as recreation, domestic, social skills and hygiene. The program has its own kitchen at Thomas Jefferson where the students learn to cook and clean up, and they take trips to the grocery store to learn how to shop and budget money.

Depending on their abilities, the students with potential and interest are offered a chance to work in the coffee shop and could hold down jobs as adults.

“The idea is to make them as independent as possible,” Schneider said.

The coffee shop is an idea Schneider saw in another district while she was in college. She thought it was such a good idea that when she started teaching at Thomas Jefferson three years ago, she decided it was worth trying out there. The coffee shop opened two years ago, after she sought funding through Donors Choose to buy the start-up supplies and equipment.

Austin Rabren enjoys the coffee shop so much that he said he'd like to work in one when he's grown up, while Donnie Whitfield enjoys visiting the teachers throughout the building and greeting them in the mornings with their hot drinks.

The runners have to know all the teachers' and staff members' names and remember who wants creamer, which room to deliver to, and get the drinks handed out before they get cold. They also learn skills in handling money and making change.

“We talked about punch cards,” Schneider said. “But some of the teachers pay with cash.”

Life skills students stay at Thomas Jefferson for three years instead of the two that regular education kids spend in middle school. While work force skills training is usually not begun until they reach high school, Schneider predicted correctly that her students would take to the coffee shop idea and run with it, and they did. Beginning this learning a little earlier will give them a head start on the skills they'll need as they age out of school.

The Macon-Piatt Special Education District serves 58 schools and 2,828 students with services ranging from interpreters for students with hearing disabilities to licensed practical nurses who stay with medically fragile students throughout the school day, physical therapy, a vocational development program and early childhood education.

Its website, www.mpsed.org, offers links to sites on disability information for parents, English and Spanish versions of the educational rights of children with disabilities, and other resources for families.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

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