Second Chances with Simon Youth Foundation

Heather DeVries, Zoe Shaffer and Don Massey.

COVER STORY | By Liz Johnson

Photos by Debi Beauregard / Custom Minds Photography –

Picture a high school classroom at Katy Mills Mall where students can earn their high school diploma in a friendly, caring and unique learning environment. Sounds great right? Well, for some of Katy ISD’s most at risk students, that’s exactly where they are going to school. Thanks to Katy Mills and the Simon Youth Foundation (SYF), as well as Katy ISD’s District Dropout Recovery efforts, more students are getting a second chance at earning their high school diploma.

Simon Youth Foundation to the Rescue

For some teens, high school and the traditional classroom setting is the way to go.  They thrive, grow and graduate. But for others, high school isn’t the best experience. Sometimes it’s just not for them, and sometimes, the outside world intervenes. There are many reasons a child may choose to withdraw from school, and it is not always easy to go back. That’s where the Simon Youth Academy steps in with a unique option.

SYF was founded in 1998 when a group of Simon Malls’ managers, owners of Katy Mills, noticed high school students hanging out at the mall during school hours. “Instead of sending the students back to school, they had the idea of bringing the school to the students,” said Katy Mills General Manager Don Massey. “Eighteen years later, more than 14,000 students who were on the road to dropping out of high school have earned high school diplomas. In addition to drop out prevention, SYF has awarded more than $16 million in scholarships helping students gain access to higher education. The Simon Youth Academy at Katy Mills is one of 30 academies across the country in the SYF network.”

Dr. Lance Hindt, Rebecca Fox, Gregg Goodman and J. Michael Durnil at the Simon Youth Academy at Katy Mills’ ribbon cutting. Photo by Dave Rossman.

Heather DeVries is the coordinator for the program at Katy Mills. “The Simon Youth Academy at Katy Mills evolved out of the work in Katy ISD’s Office of Dropout Prevention, Intervention and Recovery,” she said. “Joan Arasteh, Katy ISD Coordinator of Dropout Prevention, Intervention and Recovery and I worked together over the last 10 years to serve our secondary campuses and their most at risk students. We communicated daily with students, parents, campus and district staff to encourage re-engagement and to discuss plans of action in hopes of students returning to a successfully environment.

“At times and due to personal or academic circumstances, a return to a comprehensive high school was not the perfect scenario. When the opportunity for a small, unique learning environment came forward, it seemed to be a great chance to reach even more students.”

Massey explained how the program works. “Katy ISD was already making strides to reach at-risk students, and because of the impact of Katy Mills in the local community, SYF felt they could add even more to Katy ISD’s alternative education program through a Simon Youth Academy at the mall. SYF builds the space and puts in the major infrastructure, and then Katy ISD staffs it with top-notch educators. The day-to-day operation of the Academy is funded as part of the Katy ISD budget. These partnerships are successful when you have a strong school district like Katy ISD that works tirelessly to give every child an opportunity for a great education.”

Successful Students

Simon Youth Academy’s Patricia Zimmerman, Mackenzie Baker, Bill Morgan, Marcus Guajardo, Damian Segura, Reyna Gamero, Alondra Zacarias, Nancy Allen, Elias Perez, Julia Dunaway, Zoe Shaffer, Kim Clayton, Andrea Jicalan, Kelley Freeman, Heather DeVries, Don Massey and Raul Byrd.

Eligible students are those who have been enrolled in a Katy ISD high school within a given school year but withdrew with no real academic intent and who are at risk of being high school dropouts. Through Katy ISD’s District Dropout Recovery efforts, students are identified, referred and complete an application at the Academy for enrollment consideration. Not every student who applies is accepted due to the uniqueness of the program and limited staff. Educators at the Simon Youth Academy meet students where they are and help them earn their high school diplomas. In addition, graduates can apply for scholarship funds through the Academy providing even more support.

One Simon Youth Academy student who is preparing to graduate this month is Zoe Shaffer, a 12th grader who has been enrolled in the program since March. She attributes this to the unique classroom set up and experience.  “It’s a friendly environment, and I can work at my own pace and at home.”

Thanks to the Academy, Zoe has a game plan for the future. “I plan to attend community college, then move on to a career in psychology.”

Talented Staff and Teachers

As one of the Simon Youth Academy’s talented educators, DeVries has seen first-hand the program’s impact on students’ lives. “The Simon Youth Academy is a model for success, because we meet each student where they are academically, socially and emotionally, and our setting looks very different from the home campus. It is understood that we will not graduate a student overnight or ‘fix’ a young person’s life; however, the teachers and staff are willing to support every young adult who enters the Academy. Because we are a small setting, we are able to develop positive and engaging relationships with our students. We utilize emails, texts and phone calls to let our students know that we are proud of the effort they put forward or that we really want to see them in school every day, and we provide positive reinforcements for students when they experience success.

“It is my hope for every young adult who enters the Simon Youth Academy to be exposed to a unique and caring environment where they can work at their own pace to complete remaining courses and End of Courses exams. Additionally, I want every young person to feel empowered to move forward in their post-high school academic or workforce path with the tools and skills needed to be successful.”

And with this talented staff, great support and partnership behind them, these students have a much better chance at a bright future. Visit www.syf.org for more information.

Good Luck to the Graduate!

Zoe Shaffer is a current 12th grader at the Simon Youth Academy and is set to graduate this June. Her teachers have wonderful things to say about her and wish her all of the best as she moves on with her diploma!

“Zoe embraced our unique environment and program right away. Although She has encountered some pebbles along her path to graduation, she didn’t let them stop her from reaching the end of the trail. She has persevered and shown determination along the way to earning her Katy ISD high school diploma, and I am immensely proud of her character and hard work!”

– SYA Coordinator Heather DeVries

“I always know it will be a good day when I see Zoe in class. She is not just a ‘good student;’ she is someone who loves to learn. Zoe is also kind and compassionate.  In a recent essay in which she was asked to describe her idea of utopia, Zoe wrote, ‘In my perfect society, citizens will be honest, willing to open up about their lives and be respectful of their planet and all living things.’ I think this sums up Zoe rather well.  She values honesty, openness and respect. I am so proud of her, and I feel honored to be a part of her journey.”

   – SYA English Teacher Patti Zimmerman