The southwest corner of Navajo Street and 37th Street in the Highlands has been invaded by middle schoolers. Home to the new(ish) Pinwheel Coffee, you’ll often spot preteens running the small shop during school hours. They didn’t ditch class. And yes, it is totally legal.
If you find yourself in the neighborhood and follow the smells of mochas and chai teas, you’ll soon encounter a multicolored sign assuring you the corner shop is a safe space. As you pull upen a glass door and pass by the pinwheel stickered in the center of the glass, you’ll be greeted by high bar stools on the left side of the shop that look out towards Navajo Street. Below the towering stools, smaller round tables—with a pop of green from the succulents decorating the light colored wood—dot the floor of the shop. But, the eye of whoever enters will most likely be drawn to the multicolored pinwheels hanging on the back wall.
Pinwheel is a coffee shop run by a collection of students from Denver’s public Montessori schools.
“It started as an idea between several Montessori educators five years ago. Part of the Montessori philosophy at the middle and high school levels is that the students be a part of an enterprise so they can be a part of the community and learn about exchange and the economy they’re living in,” Julia Richards said.
What started as an idea has since brewed into a business, open seven days a week. Working with professionals at Great Work Inc., a nonprofit organization, Pinwheel was brewed to life. Great Work Inc. matched the students with experts, architects, and artists to help them stand out in the sea of coffee shops in the Highlands.
Pinwheel officially opened October 31, 2017. Now, students are able to stir a coffee shop class into their schedule and experience the economic structures being taught to them.
Montessori schools are simply a different model than most educational institutions. The name comes from Maria Montessori, a woman who studied children and found that hands-on experiences help them learn and grow. The philosophy behind Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School and Compass Montessori school’s coffee shop is described by Richards as a way for students to “come into work, learn business and entrepreneurial skills, and run the shop.”
The class is also giving the students a first-hand look at the gentrification of the Highlands neighborhood.
DMHS Coffee Shop Educator Hannah Ewert-Krocker explained the demographics of the school. The majority of the students come from a Hispanic background, while the remainder consist of Black or white students. The importance of providing a friendly environment to accommodate anyone who walks through the door is a top priority for the students.
Working behind the counter taking orders and making drinks are Drew, Tehya, and Naveah, Denver Montessori Junior/Senior High School students. While Tehya takes orders and works with customers, Naveah begins to make a simple hot chocolate. Drew stands behind the other two, waiting to assist in anyway. After pushing buttons and pulling down levers to create the drink, both Teyha and Naveah walk away. Drew takes over to put the final touches on the hot chocolate—latte art.
As they work, the pinwheels on the wall turn with the light breeze that sweeps the shop each time the front door swings open. The rainbow colors were used as a nod to the idea of making the shop a safe space for all—thanks to a suggestion from Tehya, whose parents are queer—and the pinwheels are there to symbolizes childhood.
“That was so much fun to work on and create color schemes. The pinwheels’ colors fade and bring attention to our bar,” Nevaeh said.
“They actually spin, and I believe this is the biggest visual we worked on in this class. Great Work Inc. architects helped us create a feature wall to standout from others,” Tehya added.
The classes assigned to the ongoing project work cohesively to bring Pinwheel to life. A section of the class is in charge of finding anything from picture frames to soaps to sell at the business’ small shop. Drew, Tehya, and Neveah are part of the group that price the objects.
Currently, local artists’ work is displayed on the walls of Pinwheel. In the future, the work of students from the coalition of schools will be placed alongside the professionals’ art and personalized products to be sold at the shop.
“Our school is super diverse and we could incorporate that in so many ways, but for now we started with the wall,” Nevaeh said while reminiscing on her time spent at Pinwheel this semester.
Aside from learning about economic structures, diversity has become a huge topic to bring into
Pinwheel. Taking what they know from their Sexuality And Gender Alliance club, SAGA, the students put those ideas into action in the workplace, creating a safe space for all who walk through the doors.
So next time you find yourself in the highlands, visit Pinwheel. And if an eighth grader is pulling your latte, don’t stress it. It’s not child labor; it’s a valuable life lesson, wrapped in a coffee sleeve with a dollop of whipped cream on top.