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A mall where you can go to school

Caitlan Reeg Mar 22, 2010

A mall where you can go to school

Caitlan Reeg Mar 22, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: We’ve told you more than a couple of times, I think, what the real-estate crash has done to commercial property. A lot of shopping malls are facing record vacancies. At the same time, a lot of high schools are dropping their programs for troubled teenagers, what are sometimes called alternative schools, because of budget cuts. Seemingly unrelated problems with a common solution.

As Caitlan Carroll reports from the Marketplace Education Desk.

CAITLAN CARROLL: The Westminster Mall in Southern California is pretty typical. There’s Macy’s, a Foot Locker, a Mrs. Fields and a school.

DARLA MERRILL: Hi! Caitlan, nice to meet you.

Nestled next to JCPenney is the community day school. It’s a high school. When I visit, Darla Merrill is teaching her class how to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

STUDENT: I hate this!

MERRILL: Uh-uh, don’t be a hater, gator.

There are about 60 students in the school from freshmen to seniors. The classes aren’t separated by grade. Each student has an individual learning plan. If the kids weren’t here, many of them wouldn’t be in school at all.

Eric Herzog is a school psychologist and site administrator.

ERIC HERZOG: It’s really a very non-traditional student that comes here. If you are not high risk for something then this probably isn’t your school because most of the students here are high risk for one reason or another.

The Westminster Mall is owned by the Simon Property Group. It donates the space to the school district through its Simon Youth Foundation. The school serves students who have had problems at traditional high schools — maybe with attendance or discipline. Students can attend for a semester or until they graduate.

Rick Markoff is executive vice president of the foundation. He says there are 25 “mall schools” like Westminster across the U.S. And more on the way.

RICK MARKOFF: As school budgets have declined, the growth of Simon Youth Foundation has actually expanded.

Take Peabody, Mass. Like many districts, Peabody closed its alternative school a few years back because of budget problems.

Dr. C. Milton Burnett is superintendent there.

C. Milton BURNETT: To be honest with you, while we’ve been looking for a high school, I never envisioned it being in a mall but from what I’ve seen so far, they have wonderful components that really bring the students into the workforce and make them productive members of society.

Many students don’t just go to school at the mall, they also intern and work there.

ERIC RUIZ: So this is Foot Locker, this is Westminster Foot Locker.

That’s Eric Ruiz. He’s a senior at the mall school. Ruiz’s paycheck from Foot Locker helps cover his family’s rent and phone bills.

RUIZ: I’m keeping us above water right now and school and work is convenient for me. I just walk around the corner and boom I’m at work.

Ruiz says he’s been able to catch up on classes he’d missed because of family issues.

RUIZ: In my situation moving around a lot, I wasn’t able to actually go to a regular high school.

DENNIS HERZOG: I think Eric’s being a little bit modest.

Psychologist Dennis Herzog.

HERZOG: He’s probably been in 12 different places where he’s living 12 different places over the last two years.

Jorja Leap is a professor of social welfare at UCLA. She thinks the mall schools are well intentioned, but lack some necessary resources.

JORJA LEAP: A lot of these kids that are at risk are involved in various systems: child welfare system, mental health system, probation system. And they need school settings that are sensitive to those needs.

Even though it is a limited high school experience, most kids do graduate. And when I ask Eric Ruiz what’s next, he sounds like a typical high school senior.

RUIZ: Next year, I’m going to college.

In Westminster, Calif., I’m Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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