By Barbara Goldberg
MAPLEWOOD, New Jersey (Reuters) - Calculating the best-priced cookie dough may be a small challenge for the executives of Diamond Enterprises, but making eye contact while paying the cashier is an enormous one.
Diamond Enterprises is a sandwich, salad and snack business run by students with autism and severe learning disabilities at a New Jersey high school where this year 700 orders, most placed by teachers, were served.
The program at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, is among a wave of innovative programs in public schools throughout the nation that go beyond the traditional classroom to develop life skills among special-education students, many of whom were once bused out of their home district to far more costly programs.
Special-ed students can have difficulty with human interaction, so learning manners and acceptable behaviors such as eye contact is less of a social nicety and more of a survival skill.
"The social piece is at least as important as learning to read and do math," said Eugene Porta, a teacher who oversees the nine students running Diamond Enterprises. "We need to help them develop skills to function in the community."
Tallying up orders and making sales for Diamond Enterprises instills business acumen, but a more valuable lesson also may be the teamwork and interaction that most workplaces require but is often absent from the lives of disabled students.
"We really try very hard to make what's out there in the working world come into the classroom," Porta said. "If it doesn't lead to a job, then at least it will mean gaining independence. We want them to be accepted by people in the community."
The number of U.S. children with developmental disabilities has been climbing over the past decade, reaching nearly one in six, and the fastest growth rate is among those with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
At the same time, a study this month criticized the lack of services for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as group homes or job opportunities. The vast majority are unemployed and live with aging parents, who rarely plan for new living arrangements as they grow older.
That makes it all the more important for special education students to learn skills that will give them their best shot at finding and holding onto a job and living independently.
Special education students in Pittsburgh, in an internship program that embeds them with local businesses, drill in such skills as saying "hello" when entering a room, initiating a conversation and asking for help, said Ashley McFall, the program's transition coordinator.
In Cincinnati, Project Search teaches students not just the technical skills to be a receptionist or cashier but "soft skills" such as waiting for people to exit before entering an elevator, maintaining proper personal space and how much food to eat at a buffet, said Erin Reihle, a program organizer.
In Maplewood this month, an order for two trays of cookies put Diamond Enterprises in high gear, starting with a trip to a grocery for cookie dough. After a few false starts, the group found its way to the refrigerated aisle, and Tristan Williams, 15, held a package of dough over his head like a trophy.
"You get 24 cookies for $3.89 and 29 for $4.99. Which is a better price?" Porta asked the students.
"Shantea!" the students immediately called on the group's acknowledged math whiz. Her recommendation -- the 24-pack -- was mulled by the group and then enthusiastically accepted with a toss in the shopping cart.
Tristan pushed the cart to the self-checkout line, where he scanned the purchase but was thrown a curveball when the machine refused payment and insisted he pay a cashier instead.
Keeping his gaze down, Tristan handed the cashier a $20 bill and dashed back to the machine for further instructions.
He read carefully aloud, "It says 'Pick up your change from the atte, atte..." "The attendant!" his classmates shouted.
He dashed back to the cashier for his change. Meeting her eyes for a split second, he mumbled, "Thank you." Then he headed out the door toward the headquarters of Diamond Enterprises.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune)