Sweet escape
Coffee shop teaches life skills, offers interaction

SNELLVILLE - Using computerized communication devices, Shaun Jenkins and Mia Prillerman greet the customers who stop in to grab a quick cup of joe.

"Welcome to South Perk, Snellville's best coffee shop," their machines say.

Khalia Hood and J.T. Richmond stand at the counter, demonstrating their professional postures and smiling as they take orders for cups of coffee, hot chocolate and tea. To complete a sale, they collect cash, making change when necessary, or log the purchase on the customer's tab.

It's Tuesday morning, and this is the scene at South Perk, a former storage room at South Gwinnett High transformed into a small - but relaxing - oasis for the school's teachers. It's also a learning laboratory for some of the school's special-needs students, who run the coffee shop under the supervision of special education teachers.

"I like everything about the coffee shop," sophomore Sharae Lewis, 18, said. "I love to work with the other students and to help them. I have a beautiful smile when people come in and get coffee and muffins."

Sharae lists some of her duties when she works a shift at South Perk.

"I pour the coffee, get the juice, get the muffins, wipe up the countertops, make some more coffee," she said.

Similar ventures exist at other Gwinnett County high schools. South Perk was modeled after Brookwood's coffee shop, said Emily Chapman, the department chair.

South Perk opened in November and recently began making deliveries to teachers who can't stop by during its hours of operation, 7 to 9:25 a.m. J.T. points out the value of their products - South Perk's beverage prices range from $1 to $1.50.

"(The teachers) love it," teacher Andie McDaniel said. "We've had nothing but positive feedback."

McDaniel said the coffee shop gives the regular education teachers a chance to interact with some students they may not normally see during the day. Such interaction helps the students work on their communication skills. With the help of the computerized devices, nonverbal students can work as greeters and benefit from the training as well.

J.T. knows what to do when working at South Perk: "Always stand up straight, and keep your shoulders straight."

"Look them (the customers) in the eye and smile," Khalia adds.

South Perk provides more than vocational training to the students, Chapman said. Students take pride in running the business, and they have a sense of ownership in the coffee shop.

"It's a great place to work, because it makes you interested in life," said Khalia, a 19-year-old senior. "It makes you have a smile."

SideBar: In Their Words

South Gwinnett High School's special education department describes the impact the South Perk coffee shop has had on their students' education:

"When the special education department at South Gwinnett decided last year to open a coffee shop, we had several goals in mind for our students. We wanted them to learn vocational, communication and mathematics skills in a real business setting.

"Before we even opened, some of our students took part in cleaning and painting the shop. In some classes, we discussed the start-up costs and pricing of our merchandise. Some of the language arts students participated in a marketing unit, while others surveyed the staff to determine their preferences for coffee and other beverages.

"All of our students who are able participate in vocational training at the coffee shop at least once a month, according to their abilities and schedules. We have three students who rotate coming in each morning before school to make sure the shop is set up and running smoothly. Some students take orders, make change and help with the accounting for the shop. We teach all of our students that their positive attitudes are important to the success of our business.

"Since communication is important to the success of any business venture, our students know that they must cheerfully greet every customer who walks in the door. They have to listen carefully to the order and relay it to the person who is filling orders. Students also have communicated with the staff by designing advertisements before the shop opened. They understand that the teachers who take turns running the shop also have communicated with each other in order to keep the business running.

"Through their math classes, some students have been working with the daily receipts of the shop to determine how much money we took in and to compare that with how much we spend each month. They are learning that not all money that is taken in is profit.

"This has been such a positive experience for all of us, and the staff here has been very supportive. Our students are learning skills that they will take with them when they graduate."