At-risk students find success at shopping mall schools

At-risk students find success at shopping mall schools

Simon Youth Foundation funds 23 alternative high schools in 13 states, primarily located in shopping malls
Twenty-one students graduated in 2013 from the Peabody Learning Academy in Peabody, Mass., a Simon Youth Academy alternative high school located inside a shopping mall.

Students attending alternative high schools located in shopping malls nationwide are succeeding academically, with an average graduation rate of 90 percent in the nontraditional setting.

Mall developer Simon Property Group founded the Simon Youth Foundation in 1998, after noticing students were skipping school in favor of hanging out at the company’s malls. The foundation now funds 23 alternative high schools in 13 states, primarily located in malls, that are part of local public school districts.

More than 10,000 students have graduated from these mall schools, called Simon Youth Academies. The foundation has also provided over $10 million in college scholarships since its creation.

“Our students tell us that they feel safe in the mall,” says Michael Durnil, president and CEO of the Simon Youth Foundation. “It’s a place where they can find success and understand that education is a tool to break the cycle they find themselves in.”

Most of the mall schools are around 4,000 square feet, and vary in setup, Durnil says. They are increasingly moving away from traditional rows of desks or computers and toward furniture that can be rearranged for better collaboration.

An ideal location

In many cities, malls are centrally located, accessible by bus, and a source of jobs, making them an ideal location for a school for alternative students, says Seith Bedard, director of the Peabody Learning Academy in Peabody, Mass., the only Simon Youth Academy in the state. The school, part of Peabody Public Schools, has 32 students.

Students enter the Peabody mall school through a separate outside entrance. There is no access into the mall itself from the school, so there are no worries about students leaving to go shopping or strangers walking in, Bedard says.

Inside, it looks similar to a traditional school hallway, with offices and two classrooms lined with computers. Some larger mall schools are located directly in the shopping area, and have staff to guard doors, he adds.

Students who obtain few or no credits during their first two years at the district high school are offered the chance to enroll in the alternative academy. They can still participate in afterschool activities at the traditional high school. Before opening the academy three years ago, about 4 percent of students were dropping out of the district each year. Today, less than 2 percent are doing so, Bedard says.

The Peabody Learning Academy uses an online curriculum from Pearson that allows students to work at their own pace. About 15 students per class take online courses, and a certified teacher is there to coach and tutor them if problems arise, Bedard says.

With the self-paced curriculum, students can complete a full-year course in less than a year, and catch up to their peers—a major incentive for those who have fallen behind, Bedard says. The online curriculum also prepares students for online college courses, he adds.

Each Simon Youth Academy functions differently, and may include online curriculum or small group instruction aligned to state standards. “What the current literature is calling ‘blended learning’ is something our academies have been doing all along,” Durnil says.

Most of the mall schools run on a nontraditional schedule to accommodate work or other priorities. For example, in recent years at the Simon Youth Pacers Academy in Indianapolis, about half of enrolled students were also parents. Teachers organized the schedule so that half the students come in two days a week and, on the other two days, provide child care for their classmates.

In many academies, students are encouraged to find employment at the mall. Students at the Simon Youth Academy at Independence Center in Missouri run a gift-wrapping business out of the school. The venture has been so successful that some of the mall’s stores have subcontracted with the school to provide gift-wrapping services, Durnil says.

“We take these kids that have in some cases been disregarded, and turn them into leaders,” Bedard says. “Many of them have never experienced success, and it’s great to see community members look at them in this positive light.”