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Newest offering at Gwinnett mall: diplomas

School district, mall owner cite benefits for at-risk students and community

Instead of ditching school to hang out at the mall, some Gwinnett County students will be attending class at the mall. A new campus of Phoenix High School, a non-traditional learning site, opens Monday at Sugarloaf Mills.

In partnership with Simon Youth Foundation, a division of mall owner Simon Property Group, Gwinnett County Public Schools is starting the school as another way to meet students where they are. Phoenix High School at Sugarloaf Mills will try to get its students back on a path to graduation by offering a flexible classroom schedule that allows them to balance school with work, caring for family members, or other life circumstances that may prevent them from attending a traditional high school.

“We see the mall as a community space,” said J. Michael Durnil, president and CEO of Simon Youth Foundation. “Kids who say they don’t feel like they fit other places often feel more at home in the academies.” He was referring to the schools cropping up across the country inside Simon-owned malls.

The foundation was established in 1998 by a group of Simon Property Group executives. They met students at risk of dropping out where they were – hanging out in the mall instead of in school – by creating high schools called Simon Youth Academies inside Simon malls. Students who come to Simon Youth Academies have often dropped out already but returned, or are on the verge of dropping out or behind on credits.

“Our organization recognizes the potential in all students, and through partnerships with Simon properties and local school districts, provides resources and builds an educational environment tailored to their needs,” said Durnil.

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Principal Donna Scott runs both Phoenix campuses. She said that last school year 95 students withdrew from the school and when she called them to find out what was keeping them away, almost every one cited transportation issues. Those were the students targeted for the new school. Sugarloaf Mills is on the county bus line, which could take that obstacle out of the equation.

Although this is the first Simon Youth Academy in Georgia, Simon has 35 similar facilities in 15 states. Most students who enroll at the academies graduate within one year.

It’s a sweet deal for Gwinnett schools, with a satellite school to accommodate up to 100 students where rent is one dollar annually (utilities included), furnishings and maintenance are provided, public transportation runs daily and the facility is open almost every day of the year.

But Simon officials say it’s wonderful for them as well.

“We are economic partners in our communities and when the area does well, we do well,” said Durnil. “Every 30 seconds a kid drops out of high school and makes them eligible for only 10 percent of the jobs in the market. An educated population raises all opportunities in the area.”

Last year Simon gave $1,486,380 in corporate support (including space for the academies), $602,000 in Simon employee donations and $1,800,000 from consumer donations that come from mall-based marketing and fundraising efforts. For example, the funds collected from the wishing wells in Simon malls are donated to the foundation. In addition, Simon Youth Foundation awards more than $1 million in one-time and renewable Simon Youth Scholarships to high school students in every community that has a Simon mall. It has awarded over $17 million in scholarships to nearly 5,000 students since 1998.

A “typical” school day is anything but typical. Since students are allowed to work at their own pace, the school uses web-based classes with teacher assistance, allowing more one-on-one interaction.

“The students are getting the same education they’d get at any other Gwinnett public school,” said Scott. “This is in no way watered-down. A diploma from Phoenix High School carries the same weight as one from anywhere else.”

As the oldest of five in a single-parent home, Fernando Ruiz Martinez was forced to drop out to help support the family. His family urged him to find a way to graduate.

“They knew that my opportunities would be severely limited,” he said, citing a statistic that without a diploma he’d make at least $10,000 less per year than someone who finished high school.

“Those numbers didn’t sound good to me,” he said, adding that he’d like a career in law enforcement.

His remarks brought home a point principal Scott said she explains to anyone who asks about the school. “Students don’t attend Phoenix because they’re forced to, they attend because they want to.”

Before the dedication ceremony Thursday where Martinez spoke was over, he already had a job offer.

The good PR Simon receives isn’t why the company does it, said Durnhil. The company believes the school is a good fit to its already successful malls. As one of the largest mall owners in the country, it has learned how to turn the tide of loss plaguing other malls. “Anyone who thinks malls are dead should just look around. Why is Amazon looking at brick-and-mortar sites if people don’t shop in person anymore?”

Those who study commercial real estate and retail trends know the answer to that question: Malls aren’t dying, they’re evolving.

Bob Wordes, COO of The Shopping Center Group, a retail real estate business based in Atlanta, said that when the economy sunk, malls were scrambling to reinvent themselves.

“The model didn’t meet the market need,” he said. And issues with anchor tenants that actually owned their space complicated matters when that retailer wasn’t doing well. The ones that survived had to find ways to make what they had work, he said.

“All retail entities are constantly refreshing themselves,” said Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of architecture at Georgia Tech. She’s written a book called “Retrofitting Suburbia” that looks at the changing landscape of malls, big box retailers and many other urban design concepts. But she said many factors are pushing down the number of viable properties.

There were once 1,500 enclosed malls in the country. Now the number is closer to 1,000. In the next decade 25 to 35 percent of those will be gone, she said. The demise of retailers from Circuit City to Toy “R” Us and rise of online sellers such as Amazon have certainly taken a toll on the properties. But the ones that are still thriving have begun to reinvent what a mall is.

“They have found a way to fight online by creating an experience,” said Dunham-Jones. “The more successful malls offer luxury, entertainment, restaurants and even grocery stores.”

It used to be that a supermarket inside a mall was looked down on, she said. “But now malls are clamoring for them. It gives the consumer a destination and a reason to keep coming back.”

Dunham-Jones added that retrofitting existing structures for non-retail purposes isn’t unique to Simon, one of the largest mall property owners in the country. She and Wordes cited Vanderbilt University as a mall success story. It took over the top floor of a suburban mall and turned it into Vanderbilt Health at 100 Oaks. Patients can browse shops or surf the Web while they wait for their appointment, and there’s plenty of parking.

Sugarloaf Mills doesn’t have a medical facility, but it has embraced the idea of community spaces and championing education.

Are more academies in the works in Georgia? Simon has six other properties here, and officials would only say that “We always welcome opportunities to expand in areas where there are existing Simon Youth Academies. For example, we have three Academies in the Nashville area. We call these groups of Academies nodes.”

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