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A second chance for high school dropouts

September 24, 2018

Collin Roberts is excited about his future. As early as next year, he expects to be a student at Blinn College followed by a four year university where he’ll study business or mechanical engineering.

It’s a far cry from where his life had been recently — filling order bags and carrying out the trash at a local fast-food restaurant. But, opportunities are limited for high school dropouts.

Thanks to a unique partnership of sorts between the Katy Independent School District and the Simon Property Group, the company that owns Katy Mills Mall, Roberts is among almost 50 dropouts from KISD high schools who have the chance to earn not a General Equivalency Diploma — better known as a GED - but their actual high school diploma.

“We are recovering students who have dropped out or stopped attending from every one of our high schools,” said Heather DeVries, coordinator of the Simon Youth Academy. “We take students from wherever they come.”

The academy is housed in a former 5,000 square foot storage area at Katy Mills Mall that was leased to the Simon Youth Foundation for $1 per year. The campus is located behind secure doors in an out-of-the-way portion of the mall. There are sections of the tidy but not cramped campus devoted to science and math and others that concentrate on subjects like English and history. They even have a Spanish language program. While there are about a dozen certified teachers on hand, most of the learning is done on-line.

Roberts, 19, was in his senior year at Cinco Ranch High School when he finally gave up on the traditional school model.

“I had always struggled with going to school. My attendance was always terrible,” he said. “There were times when I wouldn’t go go for two weeks in a row.”

He quickly fell behind in his studies. When you’re someone who doesn’t particularly like going to classes or doing his homework in the first place, catching up to his fast advancing peers at a campus like Cinco Ranch High becomes a lost cause.

“I’m academically capable of completing high school,” Robert said. “It’s just how they have it - it deters me. I don’t fit the system that’s in place.”

Roberts needed money to pay his bills when he left school so he got a job at a local Sonic restaurant. But even then, the lack of a diploma would have kept him from anything but the most mundane and unskilled positions there.

“Even if you wanted to work in the food industry, you still need an education before you can move up,” he said. “I was making drinks and packing bags. Nobody wants to do that for the rest of their life.”

Because many of the students like Roberts at the academy are still working, the classes are divided into three four hour blocks. They can come to the one that works best with their schedules.

“Last year we had more students in the afternoon session,” DeVries said. “We have the flexibility to make sure we can accommodate the students.”

In addition to a somewhat slower pace and more personal contact with teachers, the returning students at the Simon Youth Academy generally have fewer social pressures to contend with then those who attend traditional schools.

“It’s kind of cool to be around people who have had similar struggles or gone through similar things,” Roberts said. “You don’t have to worry about anybody else but you and your lesson.”

Although the campus belongs to the Simon Youth Foundation, Katy ISD provides the teachers and the education material. Katy ISD Vice President Bill Lacy has been to the school and even attended a couple of their graduation ceremonies. He said one of the students was living in his car while going to the classes.

“He had nowhere to go but he was able to get his diploma so he can further his career,” Lacy said. “It does your heart well to know these students want to get their high school diplomas.”

Roberts works in the afternoon so he attends the morning block of instruction at the academy. Because the class size is smaller, students there have the chance for more one-on-one time with a teacher than in a traditional classroom setting.

“If you need extra help, the teachers will sit down and explain exactly what you don’t get,” Roberts said. “You can spend as much time as you need on what you don’t get.”

For those who may wonder if the Simon Youth Academy is a diploma mill, DeVries their program is completely credible. Even though most of the instruction comes through a computer screen, it has all been vetted by the district’s curriculum officials, she said.

“We are all about high school diplomas,” she said. “They get high school diplomas and they’ve earned it.”

mike.glenn@chron.com

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