Students Run the Show at Sunnyside's Pinwheel Coffee

Students in the barista group learn to perfect the pour.EXPAND
Students in the barista group learn to perfect the pour.
Courtesy of Pinwheel Coffee
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On most weekdays from 9 to 11 a.m., Pinwheel Coffee, at 3659 Navajo Street, is bustling with activity. If many of the people inside look a little young to be patrons, it's because they're junior high school students — and they're running the place.

Pinwheel opened on Halloween 2017 as an ongoing project of Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High, Golden Montessori and Great Work Montessori, which started by transforming a former art gallery into a coffee shop. Students in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades who elect to take the "Micro-Economy and Coffeeshop" class take charge of the shop's operations. As part of their curriculum, the students learn how to run a business and have a chance to work in three groups: barista, marketing and leadership.

A pinwheel wall adds color to the space.EXPAND
A pinwheel wall adds color to the space.
Danielle Krolewicz

This spring's students are only the second group to call the coffee shop their classroom, but Julia Richards is hopeful it will grow. Richards works for Great Work Inc., a nonprofit that focuses on Montessori education and helped support Pinwheel's foundation. "This is a great pilot program to see how can we expand the idea of a farm program into something that's more 'real world' right now, that fits better in an urban environment," she says.

Richards, a product of Montessori education herself, explains that the underlying principles of a Montessori school include practical, hands-on, project-based life work, driven by students with as much choice as possible to help build independence.

"[Italian physician Maria] Montessori wrote about middle-schoolers ideally living on a farm, but as part of that, or in addition to [it], she wrote about them having some sort of social enterprise as a way to engage with the economy and with their community," Richards adds.

Student enterprise is the name of the game at Pinwheel, where social-media posts are created by the marketing team, the leadership team identifies ways to connect with the surrounding community, and the barista group learns about food safety and how to pull a shot of espresso. Namesake pinwheels adorn one wall of the shop, made by students to represent diversity and youth. Also made by students are various wares like bookmarks, soap dishes, picture frames, postcards, cutting boards and lotions, which are all for sale.

Of course, the shop is open more than just two hours a day. "It's a stand-alone business that we have to run as a business, and ideally have students run or have as much input as possible," Richards points out. When the students make the walk back to school, which clocks in at just under one mile, other baristas, many of whom are graduates from Montessori schools, are there making drinks and burritos. The mass exodus of caffeinated kids makes the shop much quieter, which may make it easier to complete your own work — though it's also much less lively.

Pinwheel occupies a sleepy corner of the Sunnyside neighborhood off the main thoroughfares, so sitting on the cafe's sidewalk patio on a nice day feels secluded and relaxing. "We aren’t interested in changing any neighborhoods; we’re interested in being part of the existing neighborhood," says Erin Breen, who also works for Great Work Inc. "These are your students, these are your neighbors that are in this shop.”

Pinwheel serves Middle State Coffee and an assortment of pastries from Sugar Bakeshop from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The signature drink, named the Rising Phoenix after the Denver Montessori Senior High mascot, is essentially a bulletproof-style coffee, blended with butter and coconut oil and topped with nutmeg and cinnamon. Pinwheel baristas also offer a seasonal latte. To to see what the students are up to, follow their adventures on Instagram at @pinwheelcoffee.

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