Making More of the Future than a Hard Life Inherited

Posted by Michael Durnil on

For more than 16 years Simon Youth Foundation has existed to help youth who are at risk of dropping out of high school stay on the path to graduation while also developing life skills and the drive to pursue post-secondary education or career paths.

Simon Youth Scholarships have awarded more than $12 million. And with 22 locations, Simon Youth Academies have graduated more than 12,000 students.

The students who enter our Academies were never destined to graduate from high school. Many have experienced homelessness, illness or bullying, and many are coping with parenting at an early age. Yet 90% of these same young men and women graduate from Simon Youth Academies with traditional high school diplomas.

Quite often my colleagues and I are asked to substantiate our high-impact results because the numbers sound too good to be true. The secret to our success, however, is fairly simple: high-impact partnerships yield high-impact results.

We are neither curriculum developers nor policy wonks, which makes us unique in the world of education nonprofits. Instead, SYF is a convener. We bring together private enterprise and public education in a way that allows each to support the other and create opportunities for at-risk youth.

By leveraging the asset of space in Simon Malls to construct alternative Academies for local public school districts we capitalize on the wisdom of the one-room school house: teachers who want to teach paired with students who want to learn brought together in a safe environment. This leads to full classes of high school graduates.

It is my privilege to represent SYF at Academy graduations. My very favorite part of this experience is standing in the receiving line of well-wishers and shaking the hands of students as they cross the stage to receive their diplomas. As part of my graduation remarks I always make a point to tell the students and assembled audiences that every member of the SYF team is humbled by the fact that we played some small part in helping change a student’s life. This year, as a young man crossed the stage, he extended the duration of the handshake just a little longer than most, looked me in the eye, and said, “Sir, SYF didn’t change my life. It saved my life.”

An ongoing topic of conversation in the office, especially as we try to grow the awareness of the work of SYF, is how great it would be if editorial boards at major newspapers (or even smaller papers) could get as excited as we do about the stories of our students, teachers, partner schools, and Simon Mall leaders who are working together to create real change. Unless one has personally experienced the challenges our students, teachers and even community advocates face it’s difficult to explain and even more difficult to comprehend.

Our goal at SYF is to make sure we provide as many opportunities as we can for our Academies, partner school districts and communities in an effort to minimize the effects of disadvantages. In short, taking students from being “at-risk” to what we like to call “at-promise.”

The demographics and statistics about the students we have the great fortune to work with can be staggering and we are extraordinarily proud of our 90% graduation rate. It is even more impressive when you learn that 35% of our students are the first in their family to earn a high school diploma. The 2012 National Center for Education Statistics report showed an average graduation rate of 80%, but the SYF delta of change is not just the 10% increase; it is the full 90%. None of the students who are served through Simon Youth Academies were on track to graduate when they came to us. 

In SYF-ese, our students “Start here. Go anywhere.”

We will continue to convene partners for the purpose of igniting hope in our students – hope that their future isn’t just a hard life inherited; but through the empathy of our stakeholders, that their future is a new legacy for their family and community. 

I am already looking forward to this year’s graduation day, when I will once again have the privilege of shaking hands with more than a thousand hard-working students and knowing that they change our lives as much we change theirs. 

How can we help at-risk students become at-promise students? Do you know someone who was or will be the first to graduate high school in their family? Share your story below, and on social media using #AmGradIndy.

Join us on April 9th for a Converastion About Education around these topics and more, includign a preview screening of The Homestretch. More information may be found here.


J. Michael DurnilJ. Michael Durnil, Ph.D., is the Simon Youth Foundation President and CEO. He earned his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Loyola University-Chicago, and both his master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Illinois State University. Dr. Durnil has served on national and regional boards and committees for a variety of higher education and community associations, and served as Interim President and Senior Vice President for the media, education and culture advocacy organization GLAAD from 2008 – 2010. Read his complete biography. Reach Michael at or 317-263-2361.

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