Jayne Carter spends her mornings at a shopping mall earning her high school degree.
It may sound like a teenager’s dream, but for Carter, 18, and her classmates, it’s a second chance.
A year ago, Carter was so far behind in school and struggling in so many ways, that she came perilously close to dropping out.
Her school administrators offered her an option: A spot at the Simon Youth Pacers Academy, one of 21 alternative high schools in 13 states that are housed in shopping centers primarily owned by the Indiana-based Simon Property Group.
Designed for at-risk students, they offer a small school setting, intensive individualized instruction, flexible schedules, online courses, and an engaged staff — all in an environment appealing to teens.
Carter jumped at it. It takes her 90 minutes on two city buses to get to school by the 8 a.m. starting time, but she’s done with her course work by 11 a.m. That gives her time to get to her full-time fast-food restaurant job by noon — a job she holds down to help her mother raise three younger siblings.
There’s much that Carter likes about the Pacers Academy, including the required hours of community service. It was when she was serving meals to residents at a homeless shelter that she decided to do whatever it took to get her degree.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to be someone like this,’” Carter said. “I don’t want to go to a shelter for a plate of food because I can’t afford to buy it myself.”
Without a high school diploma, Carter faces a bleak future.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that less than 40 percent of the 25 million Americans over 25 who lack a high school degree are employed. According to the National Prevention Dropout Center, high-school dropouts comprise a disproportionate percentage — 82 percent — of the nation’s prison population.
The odds are worse for some than others. Nationally, 20 percent of white and Asian students fail to graduate from high school on time, putting them at greater risk for dropping out. Forty-five percent of Hispanic and black students fail to get their degree on time.
In Indiana, the graduation rate for white high school students last year was near 87 percent. It was 80 percent for Hispanic students, and 75 percent for black students. For students on the free and reduced lunch program — an indicator of family poverty — the graduation rate was nearly 12 points lower than students from families with higher incomes.
The numbers fall short of the state and national goal of 90 percent of students graduating on time, but efforts have increased significantly in recent years to get to that mile marker. There has been a series of federal and state legislative efforts — some controversial — aimed at pushing those numbers up. They range widely, from merit pay for teachers to compulsory attendance for teens until they turn 18.
Education experts say the data that shows what works to keep teens in school is still evolving, but some things are clear: Identifying at-risk students and putting them in small learning communities where they can get individualized instruction from dedicated teachers has proven effective.
That’s the model the Simon academies, which have a 90 percent graduation rate, operate on.
The Simon Youth Foundation launched the first academy in 1998; the first Indiana academy was opened in 2002 in partnership with Indianapolis Public Schools. The idea came from a Simon mall manager, worried about kids playing hooky from school, hanging out and causing trouble at the mall.
He took the idea for a mini-school in a mall to Deborah Simon, the foundation chairman. She liked it. “The future rocket scientists of the world will get discovered and get the help they need,” Simon said. “But these kind of kids don’t.”
The other Simon academies have followed suit, with the foundation supplying school space and working with local school districts that supply staff and curriculum. Simon has forged relationships with other corporate partners; in Indianapolis, for example, CVS drugstores offer students paid summer internships, which often lead to job offers.
Many of the students face significant obstacles: Poverty, teen pregnancy, and broken families. “For a lot of these kids, everything they own is in their backpack,” said Teresa Knox, administrator at the Simon Youth Pacers Academy in Washington Square Mall on the far eastside of Indianapolis.
On a recent evening, Knox was still in her office, making phone calls to track down a missing student. She knew the girl was working full time to support herself and her siblings, and Knox was worried she was feeling overwhelmed with responsibility. “We’re not going to let anyone slip through the cracks,” Knox said.
Michael Durnil, executive director of the Simon Youth Foundation, said the academies’ guiding rule is student-focused: “We meet the students where they are to get them to where they need to go.”
Jayne Carter is a beneficiary of that. She’s on track to graduate in June. On a bulletin board inside her academy, dubbed the “Wall of Fame,” is a copy of her letter of acceptance to Ivy Tech Community College this fall. Every academy student is required to apply to college or some post-secondary institution.
She’s excited but a little scared to move. “I love it here,” Carter said. “There’s always someone here I can talk to.”
Jayne Carter spends her mornings at a shopping mall earning her high school degree.
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