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Happiness and Learning through Cups of Coffee

By: Esther Clark, Director of External Relations and Communications Academia Cotopaxi American International School, Quito, Ecuador


The smell of ground espresso and sounds of violin and cello mix with the rush of students making their way to class on a crisp Friday morning in Quito, Ecuador. Sweet Morning Charities Coffee Shop has opened for business and there is a buzz of activity in AC’s High School Cafeteria.

Four months ago a small but powerful group of students and educators at Academia Cotopaxi American International School (AC) joined efforts to start the first ever inclusion school coffee shop in Quito. The goal? To bring together the AC community over cups of coffee every Friday morning in a shop led by students in AC’s Learning Support program. The result? Happiness.

Of course there are many other results from the program such as learning to “work under pressure” says High School student Paola or “making economics real” says Ms. Jackie, Learning Support Program Coordinator; nevertheless, anyone observing the Friday morning coffee shop will sense the happiness radiating from the early morning group that does everything from filling pre-orders, selling baked goods, designing special promotions and delivering five-star customer service.

Making clients happy is the essence of great customer service and delighting customers is the heart of any business; these are just two of the learnings from the coffee shop project that grew out of a desire to bring the application of tangible life skills as part of the learning support program at AC. Mr. Jerome, Learning Support Educator, explains that “every skill we cover in class becomes significant.” He adds that “if you don’t tally up the decimals correctly, you lose money” or “if you don’t accurately describe the skills on your resume, you might not get the job.”


The idea of a student led coffee shop was suggested by Ms. Vanessa, Learning Support Educator, during a team meeting at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year. After the team investigated the concept, they discovered that the coffee shop idea had been implemented successfully in other schools and with other learning support programs. Ms. Vanessa explains that it may sound counter-intuitive – children with special needs selling hot coffee – but learning happens for all children when you make skills real. Paola agrees; the coffee shop, she says, shows her how “math is important in real life.” Parents of a student in the inclusion program describe how every Friday, their son is out of bed and happy to start “his work” – showing an eagerness for learning that they have never seen before.

After investigating the feasibility of the coffee shop and getting support from the AC Administrators, students in the inclusion program hit the ground running. This included mock interviews with the AC Human Resources Director Ms. Gina Del Hierro in order to understand the interview process and the importance of a strong resume or CV. After the interview, High School student Camilo reflected on the process: “I wonder what my Dad’s first interview was like…I wonder if he was nervous like me.”

Students in the Learning Support program also recruited and interviewed AC student volunteers who were interested in supporting the initiative. Ms. Jackie explains that the success of the coffee shop was due to the incredible support of the community and integration of students in the learning support program with students in the mainstream program. “It has had a ripple effect” she explains, “it has touched different parts of the school: the music department, the administration, the school counselors, the cafeteria, the student body…our entire learning community.”

Parents and board members also visit the coffee shop regularly to see what the buzz is about and to enjoy a great cup of coffee. “Who doesn’t want a cappuccino on a Friday morning?” says one smiling parent.

With the experience of successfully starting a coffee shop and business venture, students and educators in the learning support program are now thinking even more creatively about what is possible in the future. Paola looks for ways to improve the shop and ideas that can bring in more business. Camilo manages the inventory list and finds ways to make it run more smoothly. The entire group visited a coffee shop in the city to learn about customer service and merchandising. Students are also voted on what charity will receive the proceeds from the coffee shop – the idea being that “Sweet Charities” supports the work of a foundation whose mission resonates with the students.

Mr. Jerome ponders the future: “we are building it as we go along and the key to building something great is to start small and troubleshoot as you go along.” “The possibilities are endless” he says, “We are discovering new ways to tie in graphic design, CAS (Community Service) hours, Economics, and extracurricular classes into the project.” His advice for others who want to start a coffee shop? “Go for it!” he says smiling. He adds that it’s important to cover the basics before you launch (how to serve coffee, how to compute, how to deliver great customer service) and get community buy-in for the project.

“The coffee shop makes learning in community and life skills a reality” states Mr. Jerome… “And we make people happy!” chimes in Paola.

Note: The Sweet Morning Charities Coffee Shop is part of the Learning Support Program at Academia Cotopaxi American International School. At AC, we have been an inclusive school for over 20 years. In 2015, under the leadership of School Director Madeleine Maceda Heide and with the guidance of the AC Board of Directors, AC has renewed its commitment to inclusion through investment in additional resources in the Learning Support program and as an active member of Next Frontier Inclusion. More info:


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