Waterloo School District Uses Unconventional Mall Classroom

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By Ellen Kurt

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Stahr Pierce's senior year at West High School was not going well.

"I wasn't really happy there," said the 18-year-old. Pierce no longer wanted the "extras" of high school — from sports and student clubs to social interactions in crowded halls between class periods. "A lot of times I would, like, zone out in class."

So she let go of the distraction and drama of high school life and now spends her days at the mall.

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reports Pierce is one of 10 students enrolled in Crossroads Connection, a Waterloo Community Schools classroom that opened in January. She made the change at the suggestion of a West administrator.

Located in a Crossroads Center storefront that is about 15 feet wide by 50 feet deep, the classroom is the district's latest effort to attract those who have dropped out and better serve students at risk of not graduating. Students work at their own pace using an online curriculum created by Plato Learning and adapted for a variety of district at-risk programs. Eventually, administrators hope to tie mall job shadowing and internship opportunities to Crossroads Connection.

Computers sit on a row of desks and a Promethean Activboard is positioned near the open entryway to the classroom. Students work out a daily schedule to attend classes, allowing them to avoid job conflicts and transportation issues.

"We usually try and find four to five hours each day," said Kory Kelchen, coordinator for the district's online learning programs. "We're pretty flexible schedule-wise out here. We have some kids come on Saturday, too." Those who want to spend evening or weekend time in the classroom must do so by appointment.

The approach and environment is working better than the traditional classroom for Pierce, who attends school weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. After a little more than a month in the program, she became the first student in the class to complete a credit.

Earning the consumer math credit meant completing the online tutorial, doing class work and taking a final test. She has six more credits to finish in order to graduate.

"Here it's much easier to focus, it's much quieter," said Pierce. "And, Rachelle, she motivates me a lot."

Rachelle Brown, an Expo High School biology teacher since 1983, said she jumped at the opportunity to lead the new mall classroom, which focuses on juniors and seniors.

"These guys are all here for a reason, to get going. They're all pretty independent," said Brown, noting how focused students are on learning.

"I love it out here. This is my year to retire and I don't care," she added. "Why would I retire?"

Mary Meier, director of career tech and high school education, said the district was able to open the classroom and shift Brown to it through staff reallocations. Rent for the Crossroads space is "a fairly minimum type of payment," she said, covered through a grant from a local agency that deals with at-risk youth. It cost the district $5,000 to remodel the space.

Mall-based high schools or programs for at-risk students have been around since at least the late 1990s. Kelchen noted that officials studied one at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., as a model.

He said some students will finish high school at Crossroads Connection while others may just need the small class setting to catch up on credits or receive some one-on-one attention before returning to their regular school.

Pierce hopes to complete her classes this spring at the mall location.

"I'm not really concerned if I have to do it this summer or even next fall, I don't mind," she said.

Classmate Kenda Scott, 20 is thinking more about her graduation timeline. She dropped out of East High School two years ago and has been attending Crossroads Connection for about a month. Scott has a semester to finish and must make sure she's done within the next year, before turning 21 when high school services are no longer available.

She's confident of completing her courses, but does face complications. While she isn't working now, her job arrives with Spring.

"I work road construction, so I'll be gone all week and I'll come in on the weekends," said Scott.

The job requires travel around the state. Scott plans to complete online course tutorials after work hours and then schedule weekend time to take tests, which must be completed in the presence of a teacher. After finishing the classes, she may go on to college and pursue a career.

Kelchen said Crossroads Connection will focus on getting students to prepare for life once an Expo business education teacher connects with mall merchants. Kelchen hopes to see the internships and job shadows at some point this spring.

"Eventually, we'd like to see students coming from their internships straight to the classroom," said Kelchen. "Hopefully, that might lead into a full time job after the internship."

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