PEABODY — The Simon Youth Academy, a fully-accredited school located in the Northshore Mall, has received a $3,200 grant from the Simon Youth Foundation to do more good in the city’s community this fall.
Program Director Seith Bedard said that the money will go towards transportation, materials, attire, and lunches for the academy’s students, who participate in 50-80 hours of community service each year.
“It was pretty fun. All the students bonded and it also felt good,” said Annie McGovern, 18, remembering how she and her classmates made blankets for kids at a hospital. They also went to the Brooksby Farm, the Greater Boston Food Bank, and served food at a Thanksgiving dinner for seniors last year ― which included a little dancing.
“We don’t have a sports program,” said Bedard. “To get these kids out into the community, to make sure that the citizens of this town understand that they are here to help, it gives these kids more of a buy-in. They feel like they are part of the community. They feel very proud that they are able to do small things.”
The Simon Youth Academy is a special program, which is partnering with Peabody Veterans Memorial High School to provide alternative and individualized learning experiences for students in grades 9-12 who struggle to succeed in traditional high school.
“I have some kids who are just not comfortable in a building with 1,500 kids, I have some kids that have illnesses that prevented them from coming to school,” said Bedard. “And I’ve had kids who struggled since day one in school, and once they get to high school they have a hard time understanding that there is a certain requirement needed for all students in Massachusetts to obtain a diploma.”
The academy was established in 2010, after the Northshore Mall and the Simon Youth Foundation, a charitable organization of the Simon Corporation, pitched the concept to the Peabody School Committee.
The Simon Youth Foundation has sponsored 50 academies like this around the U.S. The academy is located in the Northshore Mall. However, students can’t exit the school directly into the marketplace.
The school was built with donated labor and materials and students can attend free of charge.
The academy typically serves 30 students each year; this year, the number of students swelled to 35.
“The need for this place over the last year has increased with the pandemic,” said Bedard.
The school provides a lot of support to its students. Class sizes here are not more than 15 students, while instruction is more individualized and can also be web-based. If they’re doing well, a student can focus on online tasks, while others can get more in-person instruction in real time if they struggle to understand the material.
The school has two full-time teachers, three fully-equipped classrooms, and an open-concept classroom. Students can eat breakfast and lunch at school.
Bedard works very closely with students and their families.
“Mr. B is hard on us sometimes, but that’s because he needs to be because in Peabody High none of us did anything; that’s why we are here,” said McGovern, who would like to work with special-needs kids someday. “The students who left didn’t understand that the reason he is being hard on us is because we need that; we need that push to actually graduate. We need him to come to our house if we are not in school.”
McGovern likes that students are not allowed to have their phones with them during classes, which she says makes her concentrate more on her work.
Kyleigh Daniels, who is about to turn 19, said that she appreciates that Simon’s teachers set goals and expectations for the students.
“They are just teachers who know how to work with kids that have different issues and different struggles; they are way better at understanding and listening and helping you learn than just the normal teachers at the high school,” Daniels said.
Daniels said she almost dropped out a few times, but Simon’s staff convinced her to come back every time.
“Mr. B will hop into his car, drive all the way to your house, knock on your door until you answer the door and make sure you are OK,” Daniels said.
Some 200 students have graduated from Simon Youth Academy over the years. Many of them went on to continue their post-secondary education at trade schools and community colleges. Simon Youth Foundation gives grants from $4,000-36,000 to two grads from each of the 50 academies each year to go to college.
The Peabody High dropout rate decreased from 6 percent in 2010 to 1.5-1.8 percent, Bedard said.
Additionally, half of the academy’s students work in the stores around the mall.
“That is life changing for a lot of the families and the kids in this community,” Bedard said. “It is beneficial for our high school; it is making sure that we found an avenue for success for the kids that just really struggled in that building.”