Tenth-grader Sandra Pridgen, left, runs the cash register with help from educator Connie Folk at Cava Java, a coffee shop at John F. Kennedy High School run by students with disabilities. Teacher Larry Rumford, right, jokes with her. (Susan Biddle/For The Washington Post)

By 8:30 a.m., a second-floor faculty lounge is transformed, and the rush is on at Cava Java, a coffeehouse tucked inside a Silver Spring high school. Teachers wait in line to buy a cup of fresh brew, a sliced bagel, an oversize muffin.

But the idea at work goes far beyond breakfast. One student rings items at a cash register. Another stirs up steamy hot chocolate. Nearby, Nick ­Jennings-Corrales arrays frosted donuts on small paper plates. All the students have disabilities.

“It’s the most valuable part of my son’s high school experience,” said Mark Corrales, whose 18-year-old son has an autism spectrum disorder. “This is teaching what he really needs to know.”

At a time when budget strains are often at odds with new services in special education — and many parents are seeking programs that make a real difference — Cava Java, at John F. Kennedy High School, is one teacher’s idea of what works. In nearly a decade, it has grown in both ambition and impact.

It has become an integral part of school life for scores of students over the years and tightened the sense of community among Kennedy teachers and staff, a crossroads of morning pick-me-ups and chatty visitors. Regulars queue up, a principal strolls in, math teachers gather at a cloth-covered table. A birthday is cheered and celebrated.

Hot chocolate with lots of whipped cream is a big seller at Cava Java, a program run by students with disabilities at John F. Kennedy High School. (Susan Biddle/For The Washington Post)

“We all live for this day; it’s what gets us through the week,” said English teacher Debbie Wischmann. “On Cava Java day, I’m skipping down the hall.”

Arlene Carbone-Brown, a special-education teacher, came up with the idea for Cava Java, and it started modestly in 2004. Now students serve up pastry, fruit and beverages in a full-scale cafe. Classical music wafts from a boombox. Bright silk daffodils fill vases. Each “employee” wears a black Cava Java T-shirt and plastic gloves for handling food.

“I like the interaction with the customers,” said Jennings-Corrales, a junior.

He and fellow workers have a range of special-education needs — learning disabilities, Down syndrome, autism. Some will stay in high school extra years and earn a certificate of completion rather than a diploma. Some go on to college.

What Carbone-Brown teaches is the how-to of the working world. She dwells on appearance, body language, tone, social cues. She emphasizes collaboration with co-workers, punctuality, follow-through.

“I want my students to have a real confidence that what they do matters to other people, and that it matters that they do it well,” she said.

“It’s not all about the donuts,” she added.

Which is not to say the donuts aren’t a hit.

Cava Java sells 10 to 12 dozen a week, and those topped with candy sprinkles are a Kennedy favorite. Almost equally popular is the hot chocolate, often mixed with a fistful of marshmallows, then piled high with whipped cream.

“Oh, my God, it is something I look forward to every Friday,” said Mariama Turay, a substitute teacher who loves the mingling and the mission. “It’s giving kids a sense of pride and self-esteem . . . so they can go into the outside world.”

The school-budget-friendly cafe takes enough money in to cover its own costs, with just enough extra to buy a new tablecloth or coffee urn every now and then. Carbone-Brown is “the rock” behind it all, said Kennedy’s principal, Eric Minus.

Carbone-Brown, in turn, credits teachers and staff for supporting the idea. Their regard became clear in late 2010, when Carbone-Brown mused to another teacher that one day she hoped for a real cash register “that goes cha-ching.”

A schoolwide collection was quietly taken up, and soon a real register was ringing in Friday mornings at Cava Java.

Students work all week, composing grocery lists, documenting costs and taking orders on Wednesdays for teachers who want a classroom delivery. They grind coffee beans. They board a bus to buy food at Costco and Shopper’s Food Warehouse.

“What I think we learn is that we get good at it,” said Marilyn Jimenez, 19.

On Fridays, students take different duties, some making deliveries to classrooms or offices around the campus of 1,675 students.

“Do you feel confident about going to the guidance office on your own?” Carbone-Brown asked Benjamin Song, 15, as she handed him a bright green tray bearing a coffee and a danish.

The teenager looked a little unsure. But he returned with an empty tray, smiling.

Larry Rumford, who also teaches special education, watched recently as a student who had just learned about quarters in class a day earlier — Sandra Pridgen, 18 — worked a shift at the register. It was the same lesson, he said, but “real world.”

The cafe name was the invention of students from nearly a decade ago. One took the word “cava” from the Kennedy mascot, a cavalier, and thought of the rhyming word “java.”

“It just kind of popped out,” Carbone-Brown said.

Other schools have come to observe the Kennedy project, and in May 2011 Cava Java was honored by the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. The write-up cited its role in helping students and cautioned, “Starbucks beware!”