'Shopping Mall Schools' Help Struggling Students
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And hard to follow that, but we'll try. In a typical school year, about 600,000 students drop out. Some eventually return to school or get GEDs. And some head to their local shopping mall for school. Yes, the shopping mall.
Christine Jessel of member station WUOT explains.
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CHRISTINE JESSEL, BYLINE: Knoxville Center Mall is one of those regional malls that's seen better days. There's still a J.C. Penney and a Sears, but in between, there are a lot of empty, closed-down stores. And then there's the high school where Kelsey Jones just got her diploma.
KELSEY JONES: Well, at first people are just like, wait, what? When you're in the mall you're like, oh, I'm in a mall. But when you walk in here, it's like a totally different atmosphere. You don't even feel like you're in a mall.
JESSEL: The school looks more like an office than a mall. There are small conference tables, beige walls and several vending machines.
JANICE CLARK: Good morning, Liam(ph). How are doing today, baby?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good. How are you?
CLARK: I'm doing well.
JESSEL: It's not the kind of alternative high school you might first imagine. Brent McKenzie says these aren't troublemakers. The recent graduate says a lot of these students might have otherwise dropped out because they fell behind, but then they were given this option.
BRENT MCKENZIE: You get your list of classes, all the stuff you have to finish, like all your credits. You have three classes a day and you just sit and you work at your own pace.
CLARK: You see that division sign up there?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.
CLARK: OK. Well, change it to multiplication. What happens to this second one?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You flip it.
CLARK: OK. Very good. A squared minus five...
JESSEL: The students here take the same classes and standardized tests as those in traditional high schools, but the education style is different. There are no class lectures. The instruction is personalized. Long before the morning shoppers arrive, students come up to math teacher Janice Clark's desk for one-on-one help.
CLARK: This tells me that they're both going to be positive.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.
CLARK: OK. So it's plus and plus. And then A squared, so...
JESSEL: Mall employees of Simon Property Group created the Simon Youth Foundation to try to improve education across the nation and, at the same time, it also gets more people into the malls. The foundation focuses on at-risk students who may be homeless, ill, or working full-time to support their families. The group donates the space rent-free.
Foundation president Michael Durnil says the local school district pays staff, buys supplies and sets the curriculum.
MICHAEL DURNIL: It's a real degree. It's not a GED. A lot of our kids are looking at military as a career. A lot of our students look at a two-year certificate as a career opportunity. Some go on to the four-year school. But these kids are making life-changing decisions just by getting that degree.
JESSEL: The first mall school opened in Texas in 1998. There are now 23 in Simon malls across the U.S. with a claimed 90 percent graduation rate. The foundation plans to expand, including Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Mall schools do have critics, but Dan Domenech of the American Association of School Administrators says the criticism centers on location, not the programs.
DAN DOMENICH: Whatever number of students you succeed with is more than you would have had otherwise. And so, when you're doing something like this, there is no downside. It's only the benefit that you have been able to save and keep in schools and achieve your goal of providing every child in your school district with a high school diploma.
JESSEL: Some districts let students earn class credits working in mall stores. Others don't. And even though these are public schools, the foundation does set some guidelines. Districts must cap classes at a 15 to 1 student-teacher ratio, much lower than the national average.
For graduates like Brent McKenzie, who'd fallen two years behind in classes, the formula works.
MCKENZIE: Without the academy, I would not be joining the military. So, without this school, I wouldn't be much of anything. With this school, I'm going to be making money one day.
JESSEL: McKenzie says he's looking forward to a future he wasn't sure he'd have a year ago. And now, he says, he has the best gift he's ever gotten at a mall - a high school diploma.
For NPR News, I'm Christine Jessel in Knoxville, Tennessee.
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