Schools teach disabled life skills

Tue Jun 28, 2011 5:53pm EDT
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By Barbara Goldberg

MAPLEWOOD, New Jersey (Reuters Life!) - 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 high school in the state of New Jersey. This year it filled 700 orders, most placed by teachers.

The program at Columbia High School in Maplewood is among a wave of innovative programs in public schools throughout the United States that go beyond the traditional classroom to develop life skills among special-education students.

Special-education 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."


<p>Tristan Williams, a student at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey, shops for products at a supermarket during a special education program aimed at teaching students life skills, June 15, 2011. REUTERS/Barbara Goldberg</p>