Santa Barbara High School’s Dons Net Café is a living, growing business — a student-driven entrepreneurial venture.

There was no teacher standing in the front of the classroom lecturing to the students. Lee Knodel, better known as Ms. B, instead is like a watchdog, stiffly reminding each individual to stay on task.

If a student has a question he or she can’t answer, Knodel says to Google it. Students learn more from one another than the teacher.

“Project-based learning doesn’t get done, some classes have homework, but in this class you always have a project to work on,” Knodel said. “If you don’t get it done, it affects 35 other people who are counting on you — the ultimate peer pressure. It is the real world.”

The Dons Net Café is a self-sustaining and student-run organization that provides services and products not only locally, but throughout the world.

“If Carl doesn’t order bags (or a student doesn’t perform), it affects a kid on the other side of the world,” Knodel said. “It’s exciting to know we change lives by the work we do.”

It started as a volunteer tax site, evolved to a virtual enterprise class and has come to be a real and profitable business.

Each person has a designated role for each project. There are three types of projects: customized products, community service, and food and beverage. Each student must serve two roles for each project. There is the CEO, public relations manager, salespeople, marketing coordinators, accounting executive, etc.

“They are tougher on each other than I am,” Knodel said. “But here they take care of each other; it’s a family atmosphere.”

Carl Llanos was the XSProject coordinator. The DNC teamed up with the XSProject, which gave trash pickers in Indonesia free-trade wages by purchasing trash at higher than average prices. XSProject then hired special-needs workers to construct the bags made from soap and billboard, and Llanos and his peers purchased them and are selling them locally.

The students earned first place in the UCLA Project Echo Business competition in February for the project called “Fashion with Passion.”

The Dons Net Cafe sold Du Ubunto orphan bracelets, handcrafted by local South African women living with AIDS, and all of the proceeds went toward helping families in South Africa.

The Dons Net Café sold Du Ubunto orphan bracelets, handcrafted by local South African women living with AIDS, and all of the proceeds went toward helping families in South Africa. (Alex Kacik / Noozhawk photo)

“When we buy inventory from (XSProject), part of the money goes to scholarships to Indonesian children so they can have an education,” Llanos said. “It feels good to know we’re making a difference.”

Stepping into the Dons Net Café, visitors are met with a polite introduction as each person worked at a computer, cut out coffee labels or compiled the material to sell Do Ubuntu bracelets. One student was designing a logo in Photoshop for fair trade and organic coffee that they will sell locally. Another student was counting up the profits from the food and beverage sales while her peer was updating the DNC Web site that earned eighth place at an International Virtual Enterprie contest of more that 180 sites.

Students purchased and sold the Du Ubunto orphan bracelet, which was handcrafted by local South African women living with AIDS, and all of the proceeds went toward helping families in South Africa.

The profits provided medical treatment, school supplies and food. DNC students designed shirts and marketing packages that are being sold in department stores. Senior and CEO Ana Aguilar said her favorite memory was Skyping with the South African kids and seeing the joy on their faces.

“This class has given me a different perspective on life,” said Juan Lopez, the vice president of marketing who designed the shirts. “Seeing the orphanage made me appreciate things more because I could have it worse.”

Aside from beach cleanups and creating business plans, students also do taxes. They were recognized as the best volunteer tax site in the nation by the IRS and were the first school awarded an Electronic Filing Identification Number. They file more than 600 returns every year.

“When people come in they think we’re professional and didn’t know we were in high school,” said Aguilar, who was named Youth Businesswoman of the Year by the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce.

Other teachers in the school love the class and always support their endeavors, even if it means missing part of class, Aguilar said.

“We’re doing something that we would love to do; in all my other classes we’ve never done something like this,” said Santos Esponisa, sales and public relations manager who collaborated with a professional music producer for a song the students created and performed at the Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival. “When students are open to say what they need to say and not limited, you can find out what they want to learn about.”

Espinosa said the class has helped him feel more comfortable talking with people and act professionally. Fellow student and saleswoman Summer Vesey agreed.

“I wouldn’t have taken school as seriously if it wasn’t for this class,” said Vesey, who received a paid internship through the Santa Barbara Symphony. “Ms. B has been able to push me a lot harder than I would ever been able to myself. She has a way of pushing students to the top.”

“She teaches us how to trust each other and always motivates me to do my best,” said Albasie Alvarado, who works on the sales team.

While each high school in Santa Barbara County has a virtual enterprise class, there’s nothing quite like Dons Net Café.

“You don’t feel like it’s an actual class,” Lopez said. “You feel like it’s a business where you get your work done or the company fails.”

Noozhawk staff writer Alex Kacik can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.