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Student Baristas Add Math, Social Skills to their School Menu


It’s not even yet 8 a.m., and already, it’s a honeycomb of activity inside Mandy Acker’s second-floor classroom. But the dozen or so students buzzing about aren’t studying just one subject.

Instead, they’re engaged in a hybrid class that simultaneously teaches them about math, language arts, social studies, history, economics, psychology…

…and all things coffee!

Welcome to the Kenowa Hills High School Kaffeeklatsch, better known as “the café,” where staff and students can custom-order a hot drink and pay into a program that puts profits right back in the students’ pockets.

It’s the brainchild of Acker, who figured that the mildly cognitively impaired students she teaches would be best served by a real-life experience that you can’t gather from books.

“It’s a pretty good feeling,” says Dylan Bromley, 18. “We feel like we’re helping people.”

“And it’s kind of fun,” adds student Lucas Pratt, 18, as he whips up an iced coffee for an instructor named Ms. Haan.

“You get experience, and you get to know all the teachers’ names, and they get to know us.”

From left, Spencer Zuidema, Max Frozley and Tim Hudson service customers from behind the coffee cart during a morning hallway sales session
From left, Spencer Zuidema, Max Frozley and Tim Hudson service customers from behind the coffee cart during a morning hallway sales session

And a whole lot more.

Inside their second-floor room, Acker’s students use a laptop to accept orders online from teachers ordering their morning fixes. They then relay the orders to a battalion of classmates standing by at a counter sporting hot water, a Keurig coffee machine, and all the ingredients to make everything from hot chai tea to a French vanilla cappuccino. They handle all the incoming money, making change when they have to, separating tips when they’re offered, and then putting it into a kitty that pays for educational class trips.

So far, Acker’s students have relied on the sales of tea and java to visit Cabela’s, Target and a cupcake shop. Plans are under way to take in a performance of the Grand Rapids Symphony.

They also ride the Rapid bus system to swim at Grand Rapids Community College’s pool from time to time. And if you’re wondering where the learning there is, consider this nugget from Carter Zuidema, 16: “When we ride the bus down there and if we see someone standing, especially if they’re holding a kid, we get up and give them our seat.”

The grants to finance the café’s operation – now in its second year – originate from the Kenowa Hills Education Foundation, which existsto help finance educational opportunities not covered by traditional funding sources.

And Acker affirms that it’s worth every penny. “These guys really have to work at it, and they do a good job,” she says. “They have to constantly work on both their money skills, and their people skills. It’s been fun, and very invigorating.”

It’s not as easy as it might seem, though, especially for some students who battle not only cognitive issues, but timidity.

“Go on Spencer, tell us how in the beginning, you wouldn’t even be able to knock on a door,” Acker says to Spencer Zuidema, Carter’s twin brother.

And Spencer smiles, answering with “I was shy. I didn’t know people.”

Acker leans in with her own grin. “But you didn’t have a choice, did you?”

He blushes. “No. I kept at it.”

Today, Spencer has no trouble with any facet of the operation, as he mixes a couple of creamy concoctions and heads out to make a delivery.

No stone is left unturned in a quest for running the perfect café, and that includes attention to hygiene. A poster on the refrigerator reminds everyone of the importance of proper etiquette. And then there are the constant reminders of how to make what for whomever.

Lucas Pratt prepares delivery orders for Chaos Coffee
Lucas Pratt prepares delivery orders for Chaos Coffee

They learn, for instance, that cream won’t dissolve in an iced coffee if you put the ice cubes in first. And that a splash of lemon is more than a drop but less than a spoonful. And that Mrs. Paconovsky has a standing order every Friday for a vanilla bean latte.

Even as the students mix and froth the orders, there’s time for spontaneous learning between one another.

They listen, for example, while Lucas fills them in on his part-time job at an area restaurant, where he’s mastered the cooking of bacon and pancakes and expects to be elevated to a position “where I’ll be seating people next week.”

Then there’s chatter among three or four about how Ms. Acker’s class is responsible for helping keep the school’s grounds looking sharp – more opportunities to learn about the real world through cleaning the cafeteria, landscaping the acreage, delivering school mail, stocking copy machines, setting up for conferences and more.

The stuff, mind you, that’s not to be found on MEAP tests, but arguably carries as much or maybe even more weight than standardized tests.

A familiar sight in Kenowa High school's halls is Nick Huntington, left, and Carter Zuidema making a delivery run
A familiar sight in Kenowa High school’s halls is Nick Huntington, left, and Carter Zuidema making a delivery run

Just when you think things are winding down with the café, Acker announces that it’s time to take the whole operation on the road, and in the next moment, students are fiddling with a cart on wheels, equipping it with the Keurig machine and a half-dozen different types of coffees.

They transport it down the hall, and a trio of students handles orders from students walking the halls between classes.

Junior Destiny Manning approaches and orders a drink. “It’s just so convenient,” she says, adding that in the morning before school, “there’s no time to go to a coffee shop.”

Allison Singer, a senior, approaches with friend Hannah Spencer, and orders a coffee, noting that “It’s so much better than the coffee they have in the machines.”

Then, asked if there’s anything else she likes about the operation, mulls the question for just a moment, and says this: “Yes. That it’s run by them.”

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Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary. Read Tom's full bio or email Tom.

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