Refreshed ‘Columbia Brew’ coffee shop at SM East pays dividends for business, special ed students

Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson (right) and SM East Board of Education rep Donna Bysfield (center) chatted with The East Fund board member Brent Fuson at the reopening celebration Thursday.
Shawnee Mission Superintendent Jim Hinson (right) and SM East Board of Education rep Donna Bysfield (center) chatted with The East Fund board member Brent Fuson at the reopening celebration Thursday.

When Special Education Teacher Julie Paradise returned to SM East after a few years away, it was pretty clear that the innovative venture that she’d been so proud to be a part of in 2006 could use an infusion of new energy.

With the leadership of teacher Jennifer Hair, the special education department and business department got together a decade ago to collaborate on program that would give business students first hand experience launching an operation, and special education students the chance to learn work skills. Thus, the “Columbia Brew” coffee shop, staffed by special education students, was born.

But as the years went on, the shop started to look at bit ragged.

“It looked dated,” Paradise recalls thinking when she returned to SM East last year. “It was time for a face lift.”

On Thursday, thanks to the work of a group of SM East students and a grant from The East Fund, the school celebrated the reopening of the shop this year with a fresh look.

Junior Cole Conderman, who was instrumental in writing the grant application that ultimately helped fund the renovations, said the project brought in the skills of students throughout the school. Interior design, photography, business, digital design, statistics and media students all contributed to the plan and the remodeling process.

“All different departments, administrators from all over — even people who aren’t involved in the school. We had architects who volunteered to help us lay it out,” he said.

And the new look has paid off. Sales at the shop have doubled this year, and the students are preparing to install modern features like a digital menu and electronic cash registers.

The new space has made Columbia Brew again a focal point for socializing and meeting — which has a huge benefit for the special education students, Paradise said. Having special education students in roles that allow them to interact with other students on a daily basis is crucial to creating a welcoming environment.

“It means that we’re not isolated,” Paradise said. “They’re at the center of everything. It’s probably one of the most inclusive schools I’ve ever worked at. It’s a mutual respect.”

Students who worked on the project helped welcome attendees at the celebration with bags of "Lancer Blend" coffee by The Roasterie.
Students who worked on the project helped welcome attendees at the celebration with bags of “Lancer Blend” coffee by The Roasterie.
Columbia Brew workers paused for a picture at the celebration.
Columbia Brew workers paused for a picture at the celebration.