For Austin Bradburn, a fresh cup of coffee, brewed and delivered during the busy early-morning hallway rush, became an unlikely path into the complex social world of his high school.
Bradburn and eight fellow Patapsco High School special-education students began brewing coffee in their Patriot Java Stop last December, an idea launched by their teachers as a way to give the students real-world skills for their life after high school.
"Nothing we have ever done has given them so many gains," said Dana Evans, who has taught the students with Beth Gray for the past dozen years.
The students had to emerge from the cocoon of the classroom, where they had been isolated most of their school lives, to stand in front of the coffee maker, asking each customer's name, taking orders and writing names on paper cups. Gradually, they found themselves more integrated into the rhythms of the school.
A student who could barely walk across the hall because she was so fearful of leaving her classroom was able to confidently navigate the long halls to deliver a cup of coffee to a teacher. The rest of the student body started saying hello to them in the hallways or calling out their names from across a grocery store aisle.
But then came the new nutrition standards passed by the Maryland State Board of Education this summer, designed to keep too much white grains, sugar and caffeine out of students' diets. A couple of weeks ago, that policy trickled down to the principal at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts near Dundalk in Baltimore County.
Principal Craig Reed knew he had to put an end to the Java Stop. "The ruling was pretty clear," he said.
But he couldn't just pull the coffee machine plugs from the wall. So he told the teachers they had to phase out the program after they had used up their supplies. They have worked to find another solution, and in the next several weeks, the school will move from the Patriot Java Stop to Patriot Chillers — selling slushies, made of fruit concentrates and no added sugar, instead of coffee.
Student Kaitlyn Jenkins, 18, said, "I liked serving coffee to the customers. If someone wants a coffee, they can give me their flavor and their name. I learned real job skills. I learned how to do a cash register."
But she said she is ready for the switch to a slushie. "It is going to be a little tricky, but I will get used to it."
Gray and Evans say they are encouraging their students to be enthusiastic about the shift, but the teachers have some personal doubts. The coffee was made in three Keurig machines, so all the students had to do was put the water and the small individual coffee containers in the machine. Over time, they learned to operate Java Stop almost completely by themselves. But they won't be able to have that same independence with the slushies because making the drinks and cleaning the machine is more complicated.
The students come with a range of abilities and strengths. Some can read well but struggle with concepts. Others have difficulty speaking, spelling their names and expressing their thoughts.
Together, Gray and Evans are constantly searching for experiences outside the school walls that will help make their students more independent. They dream that someday the students may be able to live on their own or with other cognitively impaired adults with some support.
During the school day, they take their students to jobs at McDonald's and Drug City Pharmacy, but always in positions in the back of the stores, sweeping, taking out the trash and doing other odd jobs. Other companies have been reluctant to let the students work at their stores because Baltimore County does not have liability insurance that covers the students, Gray and Evans said.
The students' parents have led a petition drive to keep the Java Stop, gathering 1,300 signatures online by telling their story on Facebook and other social media. But the Maryland State Department of Education, despite the hopes of parents and teachers, doesn't seem likely to offer an exemption from the rules.
"There is no exception to nutrition standards that are designed to protect the health of Maryland students," said department spokesman Bill Reinhard.
The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages consumption of caffeine by children, he said. If the school wanted to switch to decaffeinated coffee the students could sell that. But the teachers said they believed decaf wouldn't sell particularly well.
Bradburn, 17, said he doesn't want to switch from selling coffee.
"I like coffee," he said. When asked what he liked about it, he said it helped him "make friends."
Classmate Sabrina Cain, 18, put it simply: "I rock at the coffee shop!"
She said the shop "was a lot of experience for me."
Reed, the principal, said the lessons have come for the rest of the student body as well, as they learned to become friendly with the special-education students.
Evans and Gray said they are grateful for the donation of a slushie machine from Steve's Frozen Chillers, a Florida-based business, that has made the alternative possible, as well as to those who have given other items to support the project. They have decided to move the sales of the slushies to the lunch period, when more people might buy them.
The teachers have worked before and after school raising money for the enterprise, figuring out how to run it in a way that has kept the students safe and successful. They are enormously proud of their students.
"It is priceless when they go out into the community with that self-confidence," said Evans.