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Education Reporter

Mall School Mauls Academics
PROVIDENCE, RI — A new alternative public high school, set in the Providence Place mall, is taking the concept of School-to-Work to an new level. Providence Place Academy was created by the mall's developers and Johnson & Wales, a Providence university, with the help of the mayor and other city officials, school administrators, and the Chamber of Commerce. It is likely the first vocational school in the nation to be located inside a mall.

Fourteen students were enrolled in afternoon internships during the Christmas sales rush in December, stocking shelves, ringing up sales, and busing tables in the mall's restaurants. (Students are paid for their labor after the first 90 minutes.)

According to a report in the New York Times (12-24-99), "the whole thrust of the school is to help students parlay their work experiences into learning and into aspirations that can make the difference between success and failure in the real world." Juniors are required to take "a full academic course load in the mornings" and link their work experiences to the traditional 'three R's' by such things as keeping "grammatically correct" logs.

Critics worry that these children will be funneled "into dead-end cashier jobs they could have had anyway." A letter to the Providence Journal complained that the mostly minority students are being trained "in menial jobs such as sales clerks, maids, food servers, and janitors." The author questioned whether this situation was "just another coincidence."

Paul Gounaris, director of the School-to-Careers program in the Providence public schools, says that the mall academy's "focus on learning by experience fits into a broader movement intended to shift schools in that direction." He noted that it also fits with the trend toward school/business partnerships, prompting many to wonder not only about the dearth of traditional academics, but also about issues of personal injury liability and equipment ownership.

Some critics question whether businesses that become state-funded classrooms will eventually become the property of the state. "If students damage a business's equipment and the school district pays for its replacement, for example, who owns the equipment?" asks Dani Hansen, a pro-family activist and education researcher who has studied the potential impact of School-to-Work in her home state of Idaho. Others wonder who will be held liable if a child is injured while "working" at school.

Providence Place Academy is expected to expand to 100 students next fall. Mall classrooms provided by Johnson & Wales are to be completed in late spring, and university students are acting as mentors for the high school interns.

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