Students who serve: North Gwinnett's cafe run by teens in special-education program

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

SUWANEE -- Eric Dudley stood outside the Java Dawg Cafe, encouraging people to patronize the coffee shop during its grand opening Wednesday.

Customers lined up to purchase beverages, some taking a few minutes to relax and chat with friends at a cafe table before returning to class.

Located in a classroom at North Gwinnett High School, Java Dawg Cafe is run by special-education students in the vocational progression program, teacher Randy Black said.

"The most important thing is that it's preparing the ones that are ... working in here right now for a work environment," said Dudley, 18. "We're learning how to prepare for the real world to get a real job."

Dudley is familiar with nearly every aspect of running Java Dawg Cafe. He serves as a cashier in the morning, makes beverages, takes inventory and places orders for additional products.

Casey Watkins, 18, said she loves the coffee shop. She runs the cash register, makes beverages and ensures the tables are clean.

Watkins said she's learning several skills by working at Java Dawg Cafe, including how to manage money and how to interact with customers.

Jennifer Crotts, North Gwinnett's special education department chair, said operating the coffee shop is a team effort supported by principal Ed Shaddix.

"For some of the students, academics is frustrating to them," she said. "To have something they look forward to and the pride they take in it is just amazing."

The money to open the coffee shop was provided through a grant from the North Gwinnett Schools Foundation and a loan from the school's budget. The loan is being repaid through the proceeds from the coffee shop.

Java Dawg Cafe, which had a soft opening about three weeks ago, is making about $3,000 a week. Prices for coffee beverages and tea range from $1 to $2.

The coffee shop's machinery was loaned to the school by Red Diamond Inc.'s coffee service division, and the school purchases the product from the company, district manager Tim Hall said. Red Diamond also helped provide marketing materials, including signage, to Java Dawg Cafe.

"It's something we felt strongly about in supporting the school in their efforts to help these kids learn," Hall said. "It's a great endeavor."

Black said the coffee shop provides an invaluable learning opportunity for the students. Working in the shop teaches language arts and math, as well as career and social skills. One benefit of opening Java Dawg Cafe is that the students don't have to leave campus to learn how to apply the real-world skills. Furthermore, teachers can create learning opportunities for students in a controlled environment.

The coffee shop is open before school from 6:30 to 7:10 a.m. and during lunch periods from 10:05 a.m. to 1:05 p.m. to all students and faculty. Teachers can place delivery orders from 7:10 to 8:30 a.m.

"We're learning how to handle business," said Analy Enriquez, 19. "It's teaching students to take things serious and be responsible."