Peabody pursues plan for school at Northshore Mall

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / December 31, 2009

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It’s a place that area residents go to shop and dine. Soon, Northshore Mall may also be a place for local students to attend class.

Peabody is in active discussion with the nonprofit Simon Youth Foundation to open an alternative school in space within the Peabody mall, at the intersections of Routes 128 and 114. The foundation is the charitable arm of Simon Property Group, the retail real estate firm that is part owner and manager of the mall.

The alternative school would serve Peabody Veterans Memorial High School students who are identified as being at risk of dropping out due to circumstances - such as homelessness - that have made it difficult for them to progress academically. The program would begin in the fall.

Edward Sapienza, the high school principal, said Peabody had an alternative program, but it was gradually downsized and last year it was eliminated due to budget constraints and the lack of a suitable location. He said he is excited at the chance to revive the program.

“It’s an opportunity for teachers who enjoy that style of teaching and for students who really need a different approach,’’ he said, noting that the Simon Youth Foundation has had “great success’’ in working with at-risk students.

The alternative school would be the latest in a series the foundation has established nationwide in partnership with local school districts. Currently, 25 of the schools - which the foundation calls “education resource centers’’ - are in operation, most of them in Simon Property Group malls.

Rick Markoff, executive vice president of the Indiana-based foundation, said that the group’s goal is to establish three new centers in 2010, one of them in the Greater Boston area.

There are only two centers in the Northeast, both in Pennsylvania. Simon Property Group has 15 retail properties in Massachusetts, which in this area also include Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, Square One Mall in Saugus, and the Burlington Mall.

The foundation recently held meetings with school officials north of Boston, in the Worcester area, and in the North Attleborough area, to see if any might be interested in the program. Markoff said that Peabody has been “the most aggressive community’’ in seeking a center and is in a very good position to have one established. He said Danvers school officials have also expressed interest in participating in the center.

After hearing a presentation from a Simon Property Group representative recently, the Peabody School Committee voted to authorize administrators to take the next step. “We are in very serious discussion with them,’’ Markoff said, adding there is still considerable work to be done to “get all the go-aheads that would be needed’’ on both sides. “But everyone is excited about the possibilities.’’

When centers are established, school districts provide the teachers and cover the utility costs. They also share the cost of equipping the center with the foundation and local business donors. In the Boston area center, $200,000 in gifts the foundation has received from insurance companies will subsidize the local share.

In addition to rent-free space and its share of the equipment costs, the foundation provides teacher training and annual grants to teachers and student participants for special program features.

It also maintains the space, provides scholarships to students who graduate from the program, and conducts research.

Schools set the curriculum, subject to the foundation’s standards for the centers. Markoff said that by all indications, Peabody’s curriculum from its prior program would meet those standards.

Markoff said that the students served by the centers most commonly have problems related to poverty, drug use, abusive homes, or pregnancy. Many are intimidated by large school settings.

The mall can be an attractive alternative for those students to attend classes, he said, noting that teens in general enjoy socializing at malls. He said the centers also offer small classes and “teachers that really care about these kids and want to see them graduate.’’

And the centers can help students who need to work line up part-time jobs or internships with stores in the mall or surrounding area.

“We, along with our public school partners, will work very hard to make sure all the obstacles that normally face these students in traditional high schools are minimized so they can get high school diplomas,’’ Markoff said, noting that in the 11 years centers have been in operation, 90 percent of students who reach their senior year have graduated.

Noting that Peabody High School has 1,878 students, Sapienza said, “It’s quite a hustling and bustling place. For students that might be easily distracted or who may not be as invested in their studies, the alternative approach certainly might fit their needs.’’

He added, “The goal here is to see every student through to a high school diploma.’’

Sapienza acknowledged the program will involve some new operating costs to the district, though he believes they will be minimal because existing staff would be used. But he said his primary focus is how “to get these kids to succeed.

“It costs probably more,’’ he said, “not to have them succeed in the long run.’’