Nashville High Schoolers Train As Baristas To Help Them Through College

ByBlake Farmer

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It’s the afternoon lull at Bongo Java East. Five students from KIPP Academy are tripping over each other behind the counter, trying to show off what they’ve learned. Grinding espresso beans. Packing the grounds. Steaming milk.

“Let’s see how this goes,” 10th grader Ayanna Holder warns as she knocks a steel pot of scalding milk on the counter. It keeps foam from forming.

She takes the freshly-pulled espresso and begins pouring the latte, aiming for a quintessential leaf design on top.

“That’s a new masterpiece,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a cloud.”

You can only get so much practice over the course of six weekends. But this semester these students have been training to be baristas, and the purpose is a bit more academic than it might sound.

This concept was cooked up at a Bongo Java company retreat as a job-training project. But KIPP Nashville director Randy Dowell saw it as a prime college prep opportunity.

Like many charter schools, KIPP pushes students to go to college and even promises to help them finish. But Dowell says finances can get in the way.

“Hey college is expensive, really expensive,” Dowell says. “So, they’re going to be able to have a skill that could potentially bridge some of the gap.”

And as part-time jobs go, Bongo CEO Bob Bernstein says baristas do pretty well, especially with tips — as much as $20 an hour, if it’s busy.

“We’ve got Vanderbilt, MTSU, TSU,” he says. “We’ve got employees at a lot of different schools here in town. We actually hire a lot of people that just graduated from college too, still looking for that first job.”

None of these high school students had even been to a trendy coffee shop like Bongo Java before this pilot project. Ali Mohamed says he learned about the training through another student.

“She was like, Bongo Java. And I was like, Bongo who?”

One African-American student says she pokes fun at her white friends and their coffee craze.

But as Ayanna Holder looks a few years down the road, she can see how knowing her way around a coffee bar could help make ends meet.

“For example, like the summer college program we’re doing, they’re expensive,” she says. “So I’m just thinking when we go to college, whoa, Jesus.”

The looming cost can be all-consuming, says Tyssa Newsom. She’s just a high school freshman.

“Every day, I ask my mom, ‘how can I help pay for college?'”

Newsom’s mother tells her to focus on her studies so she can get a great scholarship. For what that doesn’t cover, maybe pouring a lattes will.

While a small project now, other schools are wanting in on the barista training. Chris Reynold with LEAD charter schools says he’s increasingly realized that students need a way to make money while in college.

“People are beginning to realize getting a kid to college is not that difficult,” he says. “The worst thing we can do is produce a young adult to go to college who doesn’t have the financial means to complete it, and they leave with debt and a transcript they can’t monetize.”