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A girl in a blue cap and gown stands in a row of students wearing blue, gold and green graduation gowns and claps.
A student from Simon Youth Academy at Circle Centre Mall stands and claps after receiving a scholarship at graduation Thursday. Sixty-two students graduated from the academy this year, the most in its six-year history.
Carson TerBush / Chalkbeat

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‘I finally did it’: Once behind in high school, Indianapolis students celebrate graduation

After collecting her high school diploma, Mahkenzee Osby, 18, posed for a photo in her white graduation gown with her 7-month-old daughter perched on her hip.

Osby, who graduated Thursday from Simon Youth Academy at Circle Centre Mall, said she feels proud to finish high school. After getting pregnant in her junior year, she wasn’t sure she would be able to do it on time.

“It means everything,” she said, wiping away tears. “I finally did it.”

Simon Youth Academy, an alternative high school in Indianapolis Public Schools, was created to help students like Osby overcome challenges to earn diplomas. The school recruits juniors and seniors at risk of dropping out and gets them back on track with individualized course loads, one-on-one instruction, and opportunities to graduate early.

The academy’s teaching model proved effective even during a pandemic. This year, 62 students earned diplomas from the school, the most in its six-year history.

All students who were on track to graduate at the beginning of the year did, along with additional students who graduated early through accelerated course plans, yielding a 132% graduation rate. The academy’s graduation rate has exceeded 100% every year since it started, school officials said, far outpacing last year’s state average of nearly 88%.

Over 125 family and friends, many holding shiny balloons and colorful bouquets, whooped and cheered as their loved ones crossed the stage. Shouts of “Go, girl!” and, “That’s my baby!” echoed across the Indianapolis Artsgarden as students pulled down their masks and smiled for photos with their diplomas.

“It means a lot,” said Tina Jackson, mother of graduate Lamonica Venerable, who finished all her courses last fall. “When she graduates, she can go right off to college, pursue her career.”

Many students, who transferred from schools including Arsenal Tech, Purdue Polytechnic, and Shortridge high schools, said if they hadn’t found Simon Youth Academy, they weren’t sure they would have graduated.

The Simon Youth Foundation, a national nonprofit, runs 41 academies in Simon-owned malls across the country. Over 22,000 students have graduated from the academies since the foundation opened the first one in 1998.

Principal Robert Moses said the academy at Circle Centre faced many challenges this year, including virtual instruction, parents losing their jobs, students and their families contracting COVID-19, and more. He worried some students would not complete high school, but in the end he was amazed by the high number of graduates.

“I have to chuckle, because some of you guys made it by the skin of your teeth — but you made it,” Moses said in a speech at the graduation.

Simon Youth Academy’s teachers, who in previous years frequently texted and called students and parents, amped up their communications during virtual schooling, Moses said. If a teacher noticed a student wasn’t actively working on their virtual lessons, they would text the student reminding them to focus. Teachers often video chatted with students or even visited their homes to check in.

Chris Perez, a first-generation high school graduate, said the one-on-one relationships he developed with teachers at the academy turned his education around.

Perez spent the first half of high school at Arsenal Tech and Purdue Polytechnic, where he said classes typically had 20 to 30 students and teachers were often busy or absent.

“They weren’t really into what they were teaching, they were just trying to get through the day,” Perez said.

Partly because of this lack of oversight, Perez said he goofed around with his friends most of the time, leading him to give up on several classes at the end of sophomore year. Since he was so behind, he no longer saw a point in trying.

“I think that was like the lowest point I had gotten to,” Perez said.

But at Simon Youth Academy, Perez thrived. In the quiet mall classrooms, a teacher was always available to answer his questions, and since he was working on a personalized class schedule, he could focus on himself rather than on friends. He made up the five classes he flunked sophomore year and got back on track.

On Thursday, he delivered the commencement speech for his class.

After Perez spoke, Moses handed him an orange folder. Perez had earned a Simon Youth Scholarship, which will provide him $3,750 for up to four years — almost covering the $4,500 tuition at Ivy Tech Community College, where he plans to major in finance.

“A lot of weight was lifted off my chest,” Perez said. “I can finally transition into the next part of my life.”

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