On the third floor of Mt. Lebanon High School, a small group of cooks are quietly churning out cookies, breads, coffee and tea for customers within the school district. The business, 341 Catering, is a class within a class that teaches special needs students baking, customer service and other skills needed to run a catering or other foods business.
If Santa wants take-out, he just might stop here.
Named after the room in which the class meets, the catering service provides goods daily. So, most weekday afternoons before the Mt. Lebanon school day is over, it's time to make the coffee. One student in the class handles the task: readying the two professional coffee makers for the morning brewing. Otherwise, the school's technology department, which orders it, will be missing its morning perk.
The center of the catering business's activity is the large walk-in-closet-sized corner room in the classroom. The small room has a kitchen with a stove and oven, a refrigerator, sink and a metal storage cabinet serving as a pantry.
Sometimes Matthew Krut, 16, is making the java, if not helping to make the cookies that the catering program bakes for various meetings and gatherings in the school district. Life Skills is a class in which students with autism, Down syndrome and other special needs learn skills for everyday life, including those that will help them get employment.
Earlier this week, students were baking holiday cookies.
The program started somewhat casually, sparked by a conversation earlier this year between teachers in the district's special education program. Speaking with his supervisor, Connie Lewis, Mt. Lebanon High School special education teacher Adam Vlcek stumbled upon the idea for teaching his Life Skills class students more about dealing with the wider world.
Ms. Lewis told Mr. Vlcek she bought a lot of baked goods for meetings she has with parents and faculty.
" 'Wouldn't it be great if you guys could make those baked goods that I normally would buy at the grocery store?' " Mr. Vlcek recalled his supervisor saying. "I thought if she would want this, maybe others in the school district would want it."
Mr. Vlcek spoke with several teachers about the idea and they said they would use the service if it were provided. He also spoke with district administrators and those in the human resources department about how they might support the program.
"I think people were surprised that [such a program] hadn't been done before," Mr. Vlcek said.
Knowing he had the backing the district, Mr. Vlcek wrote a proposal asking Mt. Lebanon Foundation for Education for help. The nonprofit group gave 341 Catering a startup grant to buy equipment including the coffee makers, pans and other utensils and baking supplies.
The idea behind the catering program is to teach an alternate set of skills to the students, Mr. Vlcek said. Because the Life Skills class stresses teaching social skills and vocational skills, catering is a perfect fit for the students, Mr. Vleck said.
"I like doing the coffee, prepping and cooking. I want to do this the rest of my life," Matthew Krut, 16, said. He added that his favorite recipe is for lemon cookies.
"We've got a lot of support from other [district] schools, but we only have one crew," Mr. Vlcek said. "We are within walking distance of an elementary and a middle school, and my goal is to deliver to them. From there, maybe we could have sales to the general public."
Setting up the catering program took some effort, though. After he got the grant from the foundation last summer, Mt. Lebanon's technology department worked with Mr. Vlcek to see what technology could add to the venture, said Chris Stengel, district director of technology.
The technology department set up an electronic order form for the catering service and installed a link enabling employees to easily order goods.
For $2 per day, Mr. Stengel gets a small carafe of coffee delivered to his department.
"It's always on time and hot," Mr. Stengel said. "Students deliver with a smile and pick up the empties every day at 2:30 p.m.."
Occasionally the technology office will be locked when the staff is out. Those situations serve as part of the lesson involved in the catering work, Mr. Stengel said.
"Adam wanted to make sure the kids learned how to react when something unexpected happens. So we set up an alternate location - the AV office - where the coffee can be delivered when we're not in the office," he said.
Since September, 341 Catering has filled dozens of orders and generated more than $600 in revenues. The largest order filled by the group was 20 dozen cookies baked for the district's fall sports banquet.
The new program has taught students how to process orders online and print the order forms.
Students are not paid and revenues are being put back into the program. Mr. Vlcek said he would like the business to be successful enough to give some financial support to start similar programs in other district schools.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor released a report detailing rates of unemployment among people with disabilities, citing that only 21 percent of the available working disabled population is employed, compared with the 65 percent of nondisabled workers, Mr. Vlcek said.
Many studies indicate the majority of people with disabilities are willing to work, but they lack the skills to get jobs, he said.
"First and foremost, we're trying to get the kids better trained," Mr. Vlcek said. "I do expect the kids to become more social, to become more independent and to learn how to follow directions."
In the near future, the class is hoping to expand its service to other organizational meetings, such as PTA meetings and student clubs, as well as begin taking orders from Washington Elementary and Mellon Middle schools, which are a short walk from the high school.
For more information on 341 Catering or the Life Skills class, e-mail Mr. Vlcek at a email@example.com.
Freelance writer Jonathan Barnes can be reached in care of firstname.lastname@example.org .