Denver micro-school hatches out of bike shop and cafe

Customers having a cup of chai at Pinwheel Coffee in Denver might notice something unusual: 12-year-old baristas taking orders and steaming milk.

The kids behind the counter are students at Embark, an unusual micro-school that incorporates experiential learning into schoolwork. The cafe and its adjacent bicycle shop, Framework Cycles, are integrated into the school and its curriculum, providing a context for students’ math, history, and social studies studies.

The independent school, which opened in 2019, is intentionally tiny. It serves 28 students in grades 6-8 from greater Denver. The school is free, funded by a Denver nonprofit called Great Work Inc. Forty percent of the seats are held by students of color, according to Embark principal Megan Parry.

During the school day, students may choose to do half-hour shifts in the cafe and bike shop, which are open to the public. Academic work often revolves around these enterprises.

For example, in a recent lesson on socially responsible purchasing, students researched businesses owned by people from marginalized groups, Parry said. They chose new suppliers for the bike shop, including a trans-owned screen printing company and a female-owned helmet company.

When one of the coffee roasters supplying Pinwheel went out of business, the school left it to the students to choose a replacement, Parry said. Students identified values, researched and interviewed companies, created a decision-making matrix and exchanged persuasive arguments about which supplier to choose.

“There was thorough inquiry, there was communication, there was quantitative reasoning,” Parry said, citing some of the skills students are graded on as they progress through school. .

Embark is based on a value of “radical trust,” Parry said. Students do not have a fixed timetable. Instead, every Monday morning they build their own schedules, incorporating required lessons, optional lessons, assigned lessons, and shifts in the cafe and bike shop.

On a recent morning, three students doing math exercises looked at assignments of varying difficulty taped to the walls of a classroom. After choosing a starting point, they solved the problems at their own pace, sometimes alone, sometimes in concert or in consultation with a teacher.

In math class, the students devised guessing games that they planned to offer customers coffees in exchange for discounted drinks.

In the bike shop, two fifth graders worked together to fix a wheel with a broken spoke. The students recently created an educational YouTube series called “Science of Cycling,” which offers tips on how to fix punctures and how to avoid punctures, Parry said.

The school’s mission, she said, is to “engage, be informed and courageously discover a sense of self.”

Olive Randall, 12, a seventh grader, takes a half-hour shift behind the counter at Pinwheel Coffee with assistant manager Dot Williams (right) and barista Annie Terry (left).

Melissa Bailey for Chalkbeat

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that while Embark is committed to diversity, it does not reserve seats for any particular group of students.