Washington Square Mall is not convenient for many of the students who attend the Pacers Academy High School that’s tucked at the end of one corridor.
The students drive or take city buses from all parts of town to the mall on the far-east side of Indianapolis. Yet the students give Pacers Academy high marks because it’s their ticket to graduation.
“It’s a cool little program,” said Dyahzon Owens, a 19-year-old who was in danger of not graduating from Arlington High School when he transferred to the academy, an alternative school operated by Indianapolis Public Schools, in February. “They do more for me than just get credits.”
Simon Property Group Inc., which provides the rent-free space to IPS, and Simon Youth Foundation play background roles in the lives of students like Owens. But on the national stage, the Indianapolis foundation is looking to become a leading advocate of alternative education.
With a new president, J. Michael Durnil, the foundation hopes to raise more money, find more partners in the business community, and help the public better understand its mission.
When so many people are talking about what’s wrong with education, Durnil said, “I’m happy to talk about students who just need that second chance, a second swing at that diploma.”
Despite a 13-year presence in local communities, Durnil said, most people don’t understand what the foundation is about.
In a step toward better marketing, the foundation will refer to the schools as Simon Youth Academies, rather than “education resource centers.”
Most corporate foundations have narrowed their focus to a specific topic or cause, but Simon Youth Foundation seems to have taken that a step further, said Kris Kindelsperger of Johnson Grossnickle Associates, a fundraising consultant based in Greenwood.
While corporate foundations, like other philanthropists, want to have a bigger impact in a more narrow area, the trade-off is sometimes less recognition from the public, Kindelsperger said. That’s especially true when the foundation supports a program, rather than putting its name on a building, he said.
“It’s a strategic issue that every corporate foundation has to decide,” Kindelsperger said.
Simon Youth Foundation formed in 1998 at the urging of mall managers, who noticed a lot of teenagers were working in retail during school hours. Their idea was to provide space in the malls where teens could do the work necessary to graduate.
School districts took to the idea, and Simon Youth Foundation now supports 25 alternative schools at malls in 13 states. A 26th school will open next fall at Gurnee Mills in Gurnee, Ill.
The school districts are responsible for operating costs, and each one sets up its own program. IPS has a second Pacers Academy in Lafayette Square, where admissions criteria is slightly different than at Washington Square, Principal Teresa Knox said.
The Washington Square school runs two three-hour shifts a day with 45 to 55 students in each. The students, who must be at least sophomores, do most of their coursework online with teachers in English, math and social studies there to guide them.
They work at their own pace under individual plans toward graduation.
Knox believes IPS has seen success with the mall setting because it’s a family-like environment. Students say that at typical high schools, they don’t fit in and don’t feel comfortable.
Two of her current students refused to show up to their assigned schools, but at Washington Square, they have near-perfect attendance, she said.
The students also participate in community service, and the school helps the students find jobs and internships. One of its major partners is CVS Caremark, which has a distribution center nearby off I-465.
Most of the students who were in class on a recent day left for jobs in the afternoon at restaurants, nursing homes and hospitals. One student has a job at Burlington Coat Factory in Castleton, though that chain is an anchor at Washington Square.
Ties to the host malls vary. The school in Independence, Mo., runs a successful gift-wrapping business, and Macy’s recently asked it to open a second location inside its store, Durnil said.
The situation at Washington Square reflects the local economy. Many of the mall stores are family-owned, and they aren’t hiring, Knox said.
The foundation continually battles the impression that its schools serve students with behavior problems, Durnil said. In reality, the students have to be mature enough to manage the more flexible schedule at the alternative school.
The students tend to be highly motivated. Keka Dunn, 19, heard about the Pacers Academy from a friend at Arlington High School and requested a transfer.
“Ever since then, I’ve just been moving on ahead,” she said.
Dunn, the mother of an infant, would like to become a paralegal.
Most of the students at mall-based schools do graduate—the foundation reports a national average of 90 percent. And 60 percent of them continue their educations.
Despite local government fiscal crises across the country, Durnil said, “I’ve had a conversation at least once a week with a location that’s looking to open a school.”
The foundation supports the schools by hosting an annual conference for teachers and administrators, helping line up internships for students, and providing college scholarships.
Durnil hopes students’ success stories will inspire other corporate partners to get involved. He thinks the foundation will attract a different type of education supporter than charter schools do, which have become a cause celeb for the reform-minded.
“People like the fact that we’re trying to bring solutions to the public school system, rather than competing with them,” Durnil said.
David Harris, who led former mayor Bart Peterson’s foray into charter schools and later started The Mind Trust, an education-reform not-for-profit, said most charters strive for a rigorous, four-year academic environment. With the exception of Goodwill’s Indy Met High School, he said, most aren’t trying to serve at-risk populations, like the mall-based schools do.
“We need lots of different options,” he said.
Durnil, 49, spent most of his career in higher education before joining the foundation in December. He succeeds longtime Executive Vice President Richard Markoff, who retired.
The foundation also has hired Laura Foshee, who previously worked at Girl Scouts of Central Indiana, as chief development officer. One of the new executive team’s goals is to boost the foundation’s annual revenue by $4 million to $5 million over the next two years.
Most of the $6.3 million the foundation brought in last year was in-kind rents by Simon Property Group and support from malls not owned by Simon. (Simon has sold a handful of malls that housed schools—including Lafayette Square—but struck agreements so schools could continue their presence.)
Much of the cash, about $1.8 million, came from fundraisers at malls around the country, while Simon employees provided another $288,000.
Another of Durnil’s goals is to grow the endowment that provides the scholarships. It now stands at about $5.8 million.
Despite the obvious tie to the nation’s largest mall owner, Durnil emphasized that the foundation is an independent, not-for-profit organization.
“We’re not the corporate, philanthropic arm of the Simon Property Group or the Simon family,” he said.
Two of the mall managers who helped start the foundation still serve on the board. The chairwoman is Deborah Simon, who doesn’t work at the company but is the sister of CEO David Simon.
“The ‘Simon’ is really the Simon employees,” Durnil said.•