Shoppers leaving Bloomingdale's and strolling into the first-floor concourse of the mammoth Mall of America probably pay scant attention to a metal door a few yards away bearing the mysterious sign "Metropolitan Learning Alliance. Leila Anderson Learning Center.''
Tucked between shops called Sox Etc. and The Wooden Bird, the door leads down a corridor behind the Bloomington, Minn., mall's retail facade to a newly constructed set of rooms that make up one of the nation's more unusual educational facilities.
At noon on a recent weekday, high school students from five Twin Cities-area districts were straggling into the learning center for a class called "Entrepreneurship and Business.''
Danielle Walker, an 18-year-old senior at Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis, has just taken two city buses to reach the mall, which is a 15- or 20-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul.
"When I told people at school I was coming to the class here, they said, 'What, to learn to shop?''' Walker says. "I had to tell them it's a business class.''
Few American teenagers need special instruction in how to spend money at a retail mecca. Fewer still get to spend their afternoons cracking the books for high school credit at the mall. Yet, 34 students are doing just that at the nation's largest shopping mall.
It has been touted as the mall with everything: nearly 400 stores covering 2.5 million square feet of shopping space, a seven-acre Knott's Camp Snoopy amusement park, the LEGO Imagination Center, such trendy restaurants as Planet Hollywood and Wolfgang Puck's Pizzeria, and, just opened, a Las Vegas-style wedding chapel.
Opened in 1992, the Mall of America has become a tourist destination, especially for day-trippers from throughout the Midwest, who bus or fly in for a day of shopping without ever setting foot in a downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul store. It attracted an estimated 40 million visitors in its first year, with total sales of about $650 million.
When the mall was under construction three years ago, educators in the Twin Cities area sensed an opportunity to do something innovative: They envisioned building a full-fledged K-12 school as part of the giant facility.
Mall employees, they reasoned, could put their children in a child-care or elementary school program, while high school students could take classes there before shuffling off to their retail jobs. Adults coming to shop would be able to take courses, too.
In late 1991, about 10 months before the mall opened, five school districts--Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington, Richfield, and St. Louis Park--signed a joint agreement creating the Metropolitan Learning Alliance.
The mall school would be "the cutting edge'' of education, one Minneapolis school board member said at the time.
But the project seems to have been hampered by a dull blade.
"The idea is terrific, but the implementation is a classic illustration of what happens when you have not just one but seven different bureaucracies working together,'' says Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. The bureaucracies involved in the project are the five districts, the Metropolitan Learning Alliance board, and St. Paul's University of St. Thomas, which is also a partner.
"It's been a matter of having to go through so many groups to sign off on things,'' says Nathan, an observer of education-reform trends.
The education facility was supposed to open when the mall did in 1992. But a paucity of business partners to help shoulder the costs delayed the project. Organizers then tried to get just the high school segment off the ground by last year. Again, a lack of money and disorganization seemed to bog it down. (Last fall, the Metropolitan Learning Alliance did not renew the contract of its first project manager.)
Finally, at the end of January of this year, the first 16 students from St. Paul and Bloomington began the business course in temporary space at the mall. Eighteen students from Minneapolis joined the program a few weeks later at the start of that district's final academic trimester. (Because of the state's open-enrollment policy, a portion of state funding follows students to the learning center.)
The new project manager, Nancy Katzmarek, who is on loan from the administrative ranks of the St. Paul district, says the nontraditional program is now back on track and should have many more students enrolled by next fall.
"There are a lot of kids who just aren't very engaged in what they're doing in high school,'' she says. "They're looking for a new experience.''
The Leila Anderson Learning Center, named for a recently retired Bloomington school superintendent, opened in March. The 9,000-square-foot facility has four classrooms, a large assembly room, a computer lab, and space for offices and storage.
The facility was built with a $350,000 loan from the University of St. Thomas, which uses it for college courses at night.
A local adult-education program also has begun using the classrooms.
No Burger-Flippers Needed
The business classroom's bare walls contrast with the barrage of visual stimulation in the mall's retail corridors. In fact, the interior of the facility does not look radically different from any late-vintage school.
As students arrive from their home high schools--they either drive or use passes to ride public-transit buses--several bring meals from the nearby food courts to eat hurriedly as a discussion about career goals and job searches gets under way.
The class is led by two teachers, Jerry Cromer-Poire, a veteran St. Paul social-studies instructor, and Mark Loken, a recent hire.
"Think about where you would like to be 10 years from now,'' Loken tells the students, who list plans to become industrial engineers, child-care workers, musicians, and business leaders.
The students spend their mornings at their regular high schools, then come to the mall in the afternoons on four out of five school days. Two of those days are spent in class for 2-1/2-hour discussions of business and economics. On the other two days, the students work as unpaid interns in mall stores. They are supposed to work alongside managers to learn store operations, and not merely serve as free labor.
"We don't want the kids to be flipping burgers'' on their internships, Loken says. "We want them to watch what a manager does.''
Some of the students have regular paid jobs in the mall as well.
Patrick Hansen, a 17-year-old junior at Minneapolis South High School, was already working at the mall's Knott's Camp Snoopy amusement park when he signed up for the program. For his internship, he took a position at Oshman's Super Sports USA, a giant sporting-goods store.
"I'm really into sports,'' explains Hansen, who says he enrolled in the mall school just "for a change.''
"I've been in the same [high school] building for three years,'' he adds just before a class break allows time for students to scatter out into the mall for some quick shopping or walking around.
Hiram Bonet, a 17-year-old junior at John F. Kennedy High School in Bloomington, works at the mall's Merry-Go-Round clothing outlet, but he also interns in the Mall of America's marketing department.
"We wouldn't be learning the same things if we were in a regular class setting,'' he says.
Other students hold internships at The Body Shop, Gap for Kids, Foot Locker, and Musicland. The mall's "anchor'' department stores--Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Nordstrom, and Sears--have been slower to sign on to the program, but Nordstrom has agreed to take on one intern.
Cromer-Poire says the project provides a learning experience that is relevant to the real world.
"Experiential learning works,'' he says. "These skills can transfer to the economy.''
But critics say there is something wrong with pushing high school students into the commercial marketplace, especially at a shopping shrine like the Mall of America.
"Isn't that one of our problems, that we have too much commercialism?'' wonders David Tilsen, a former Minneapolis school board member who voted against the project.
"Isn't there too much emphasis on what kind of tennis shoes you are wearing and what kind of status symbols you have to have?'' he continues. "Everything is controlled by the mighty dollar.''
Tilsen also questions the influence of business on the mall school's curriculum and expresses doubt about the value of mall internships.
"My kid goes out to the mall, too, but I don't pretend it's a substitute for education,'' he says.
However, it's not unusual in the Twin Cities to find public education in nontraditional locations. In downtown Minneapolis, such businesses as IDS Financial Services Inc. and Northern States Power Company help fund the Downtown Open School, an elementary school housed in an office building. In St. Paul, hundreds of high school students study part time at hospitals, police stations, and businesses. And the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district in the Twin Cities suburbs has announced plans for an alternative high school at the Minnesota Zoo.
The Mall of America learning center is just one more such nontraditional facility, supporters say, and it has the added benefit of mixing city and suburban students.
"This is a great idea for bringing together kids from all different backgrounds to a common turf,'' Cromer-Poire says.
And some students stress that they did not enroll in the program just to have easier access to retail stores.
"I'm not a big shopper,'' says Kristin Johnson, an 18-year-old senior at Highland High School in St. Paul. "I've bought two pairs of shoes since I've been out here. That's it.''
Johnson has interned at one of the mall's more unusual stores: the B.F.I. RecycleNow Center. The center has educational displays about environmental issues and sells such products as can crushers and shoes made from recycled rubber.
"I'm a vegetarian, and I'm interested in recycling,'' Johnson says. She has since moved on to intern with the mall's security force.
Jeff Crees, the manager of the recycling store, explains that his company, Browning-Ferris Industries, "is trying to show support for the Metropolitan Learning Alliance. I told [the alliance] I didn't want to take an intern who just wanted to do retail.''
B.F.I., which handles waste disposal at the mall, has been the major corporate sponsor for the learning center, contributing $1 million to be spread over 10 years.
New Courses Planned
Supporters of the learning alliance would love to have more corporate contributions. In addition to B.F.I.'s grant and the University of St. Thomas's loan, the school benefits from the donation of space from the mall's management, Melvin Simon & Associates of Indianapolis. (The mall is jointly owned by Melvin Simon, the Edmonton, Canada-based Triple Five Corporation, and the Teachers' Insurance and Annuity Association, a major education-pension fund.)
"This is an experiment that we think is going to be watched around the country,'' Susan Austin, a spokeswoman for the mall's management, says. "We've designated this space for the school. I don't see a day when we would want to take that back.''
Nathan of the Center for School Change says the project would have come to fruition sooner if it had been tried as a "charter'' school--one that operates under contract with the state and free from many state regulations--or if a group of teachers from a single district had been given the opportunity to create it.
Instead, the Metropolitan Learning Alliance has spent three years and a significant portion of its corporate contributions "and what we have is one small class,'' Nathan says. "Is this the best we can do?''
Katzmarek, the project manager, says it's still possible down the road for day care and elementary grades to be added to the learning center.
"There are 14,000 people employed in this mall,'' she says. "A day-care center and elementary school would hugely benefit a Bloomingdale's and the kind of people they can attract as employees.''
For now, the program hopes to add several more high school courses next fall, if student demand is strong enough. The proposed classes would teach ecology, arts, English and social studies, and "global connections/future studies.''
All the courses are designed to use the resources of the mall. For example, ecology students would work with B.F.I. to "explore the relationships between natural resources and consumer use,'' according to a brochure. Art students might paint murals in the mall or do improvisation on a stage.
The learning center hopes to attract as many as 100 students by fall. Some students will be able to spend their full school day at the mall, if they decide to take the English/social-studies course and two others, Katzmarek says.
"The potential for this space is just enormous,'' she says.