It's the afternoon lull at Bongo Java East, and five students from KIPP Academy are tripping over each other behind the counter of this hip Nashville coffee joint, trying to show off what they've learned. They're grinding espresso beans. They're packing the grounds. They're steaming milk.
"Let's see how this goes," 10th-grader Ayanna Holder says as she knocks a steel pot of scalding milk on the counter to keep foam from forming. She takes a freshly pulled espresso and begins pouring the latte, aiming for a quintessential leaf design on top.
It doesn't quite go as planned.
"It's a cloud," she says with a laugh. "That's a new masterpiece."
You can only get so much practice over the course of six weekends, after all. But the group of students training to be baristas this semester are making good progress.
For them, the purpose of this crash course in coffee is a bit more academic than it might sound: They're getting trained to earn money to help pay for college.
The idea was brewed up at a Bongo Java company retreat as a job-training project. But when folks from Bongo came to him with the idea, 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.
"College is expensive — really expensive," Dowell says. With barista training, he notes, students can get jobs at coffee shops to support themselves — and pay for what financial aid doesn't cover.
And as part-time jobs go, Bongo CEO Bob Bernstein says baristas do pretty well, especially with tips. They can make as much as $20 an hour during busy times of the day.
"We've got employees at a lot of different schools here in town," Bernstein says — including students from Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee State University. "We actually hire a lot of people that just graduated from college, too, still looking for that first job."
Before joining Bongo's training program, none of these KIPP high school students had been to a trendy coffee shop.
When 10th-grader Ali Mohamed first heard about the training program, "I was like, Bongo who?" he says.
But as freshman Tyssa Newsom looks a few years down the road, she can see how knowing her way around a coffee bar could help make ends meet. "Every day, I ask my mom, 'How can I help pay for college?'" she says.
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 lattes will.
The training program at Bongo is a small pilot project for now. But other schools are wanting in on the barista training.
"People are beginning to realize getting a kid to college is not that difficult," says Chris Reynolds with LEAD charter schools. "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."