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Mall Schools

Is the answer for your district's at-risk problems as close as the nearest mall?

You probably know the Simon shopping malls for its upscale chain stores, busy food courts and commercial success around the country. You may not know about the brand of public education that's available in a growing number of those malls.

For the past six years, through a partnership between its non-profit Simon Youth Foundation and local school districts, mega-mall developer Simon Property Group has been creating "high schools within malls" for at-risk students. These facilities--called Educational Resource Centers--now number 21 in 11 states, from Texas and Washington to Pennsylvania and Florida.

And they are proving a new alternative in alternative education by meeting teens in the place where you're likely to find them: the very spot where many a principal has worried students were playing hooky.

There's no gym class,
lunch is in the food
court, and sometimes
students return to class
showing off the clothes
they've just bought.

"It's often already a central location for kids," says Deb Giroff, the youth foundation's manager of education services, who adds that running a school in a mall is not as far-fetched as it sounds. "It's where they hang out anyway. It's often on bus lines. It contains a ready source of jobs, and these kids need jobs."

Giroff oversees the development of new education resource centers, two of which opened earlier this year at Simon malls in Westminster, Calif., and Wichita, Kansas. Along the way, she works with individual school districts, groups of districts and even non-profit private organizations providing alternative education.

"The most frequent thing that happens is that we are contacted by a school district. They hear about us," Giroff explains. What typically follows is an 18-month process that involves finding at least 3,000 square feet of available space, meeting with district officials, and finally creating a legal contract with the district and a formal lease with the mall. The district provides its own teachers but gets the new classroom space for free.

Simon's Education Priorities

These mini-schools usually serve 50 to 100 students and have a recognizable curriculum of English, math, science and social studies courses needed for a high school diploma. But they also have to pay attention to what Simon says, or at least suggests. In November, Simon's foundation brought administrators and teachers from these schools around the country to a conference at its Indianapolis headquarters, where they shared practices and problems.

"We have some very different ideas about what does and does not work," Giroff says.

Among the Simon priorities are a 15-1 student/teacher ratio, computer-based learning, job shadowing at mall stores, and a hefty dose of community service.

"We often have a young student who may not have seen one parent or another, and a lot of our kids are emancipated at the tender age of 15," Giroff observes. "What we see consistently is a disengagement from society as a whole, from adult supervision, and from themselves. The community service takes our students out of themselves, and gives them the opportunity to have a successful outcome, something they haven't had much experience with."

Students at Simon's three mini-schools in Indianapolis have fanned out to do a range of volunteer work, from cleaning up the banks of nearby rivers to reading stories to children at local family shelters.

School districts are seeing the economic benefits. "When Simon came forward and said, 'Let us be your partner and not charge you rent,' that was huge. That square footage has a value to them, and it does to us," says Vernon Jacobs, superintendent of the Glendale Union High School District, which supports nine high schools, including the resource center at the Metrocenter mall in Phoenix.

"There are a couple of other critical reasons why districts buy in," says Terrie Suica Reed, the president of Phase4 Learning Center, located at the Century III Mall in Pittsburgh. This mall school, which is incorporated as a private non-profit, serves 17 surrounding districts.

"In the districts' eyes, they see a partnership," Reed continues. "Our boards work well together, and we have an excellent curriculum aligned to state standards."

Foundation Executive Director Rick Markoff adds that these mall schools are attractive to teachers, as well. "They're finding smaller class sizes, they get excellent equipment, and they're freed from the 1,001 demands placed on teachers and administrators at their regular schools," Markoff explains. "There are so many distractions, unfunded mandates, and other items that don't let them focus on what they love about education."

A Fresh Start for At-Risk Students

When the school at the Layfayette Square Mall in Indianapolis opened in December 2003, it was the new site for a pre-existing alternative education program run jointly by the surrounding Avon, Brownsburg and Pike Township districts. For the past year, administrator Bill Titus has been morphing the new resource center into the Simon mold of self-paced, computer-based learning and work-study, with the retail stores in the mall as primary sites for job shadowing and eventual employment.

The entrance to the school is a glass door just to the side of a main mall entrance. On the inside, the new facility looks like it could serve as a corporate training center, with its grey rugs, fluorescent lighted classrooms, marker boards instead of blackboards, and banks of computers. The 60 students in grades 9-12 share four classrooms and a larger 20-unit computer lab.

"It's pretty neat. The kids really enjoy that they're going to school in a mall," Titus says. "First of all, it's a new, fresh, cleaner building than what they were used to, and they're proud and happy to be here. It's far away from the dilapidated building that was attached to our central office and from the reminders of failure. People who manage most alternative schools will tell you that you need not just a new curriculum, but a change of site."

Seventeen-year-old Tuesdae Cook, a junior and a member of the entering class here, had previously gone to Pike High School. She wears blue jeans and a college sweatshirt, but she says that going to college was not in the picture last year, before she came here.

"I wasn't making any good grades, and I was at the point where I was going to drop out. So they said, 'Try this school,' " she recalls. Even though Cook lives across the street from her old high school, she says it's worth the commute in order to take smaller classes and work at her own rate. Now she plans to graduate ahead of schedule and to attend an area college.

Junior Antonio Edwards, age 20, also left behind Pike High School. "I came here because I couldn't get my work done there. There were too many students in the classes." While he says he misses playing on the football team, which he sees as a vehicle to a possible college scholarship, Edwards sees this alternative school as his best chance of getting a high school diploma and going on to college.

Educators Grudgingly Approve

There are other adjustments educators and students have had to make on this mall campus. For starters, any activity outside of the ERC's glass front door is under the jurisdiction of mall security rather than the school. So any disciplinary problems that occur in the parking lot or inside the mall become more complicated matters.

There's also no physical education program, and the lunchroom is actually the mall's food court, just past the Sears and in the shadow of a Burlington Coat Factory store. At one of the small tables today, brightened by a skylight above, one student pores over a heavy textbook, while her classmates line up for lunch, clearly favoring the McDonalds over the adjacent pizza stand.

Titus, who was previously an athletic director at a school that forged deals with Coca-Cola and other corporate sponsors, says he has no problems with the commercial side of the school day here. Just outside his office, you can find a collection of clear acrylic panels that name donors from national companies like Eli Lilly to more local businesses, testimony to Simon's corporate clout.

"It's hard to knock it, but it's too bad that the line between education and commercial culture is so porous," observes author Alyssa Quart, whose recent book Branded: The Buying and Selling of American Teenagers studied youngsters in malls.

" As long as the kids are successful, we appreciate the partnership." -Larry Galyen, assistant superintendent of operations, Pike Township (Ind.) School District

"The first week the [learning center] at Lafayette Square opened, the students would come back after lunchtime and show the clothes they had bought," admits the foundation's Deb Giroff. "They're kids, and if kids have a dollar in their pocket, they'll go spend it."

But the consensus among the educators supporting these schools is that the benefits outweigh any commercial exposure.

"Sometimes you've got to reel the kids back in because they stray, but for every distraction you have an employment opportunity," says Chris Chalker, who directs alternative education for Warren Township, Ind., and also serves as administrator of the Washington Square mall school in Indianapolis.

"As long as the kids are successful, we appreciate the partnership," adds Larry Galyen, the assistant superintendent of operations for Pike Township, Ind.

The success stories at Simon's ERCs are growing. In Pittsburgh, Terrie Suica Reed offers dazzling numbers from the Phase4 Learning Center: a 90 percent attendance rate, 60 percent going on to college, and 40 of those on college scholarships provided by Simon's foundation. Through the 2003-2004 school year, according to Simon figures, all of its schools had graduated just over 2,000--87 percent of those eligible.

Chalker tells the story of a young woman "who had fallen off the radar screen" twice, had two children when she was 16, and finally came to the Washington Square school, where she graduated and now attends college on a Simon scholarship. "You don't need a whole lot of data and research to say it works," Chalker adds.

But data is just what Simon's foundation is seeking this year by contracting with Indiana University's Center for Education and Evaluation Policy. "We want to know our strengths and weaknesses," says Markoff. "Where are we falling short? What do we need to improve? Once we get through the evaluation, we'd like to build these [schools] at a more active rate."

Ron Schachter is a freelance writer who frequently goes on location to report education stories. He's based in Newton, Mass.