16 Years of Program Success


Contributed by Michelle Bellej, Regional Vice President, Marketing
Simon Brand Ventures ®
Simon Property Group ®

Years ago, I sat at my dining room table with colleagues Tim Earnest and Ron Hanson, brainstorming ideas to help at-risk youth in our community and others like ours around the country. We weren’t educators or counselors.  None of us held doctoral degrees, nor had we ever stood in front of a classroom to teach.  We were – and still are – Simon employees, and our areas of expertise encompassed property development, marketing and retail trends.

Nonetheless, the national dropout crisis and issues facing public education weighed heavily on our minds.  We were seeing in our malls too many kids who should have been in school, and although tackling a problem so large in scope was daunting, we all agreed that we wanted to try. Somewhere in those early conversations, with the encouragement of our employer and enthusiastic support from members of the Simon family, the ideas for Simon Youth Foundation and Simon Youth Academies were born.

We knew that at-risk kids who needed to be in school were comfortable in malls, so we partnered with a local school district and piloted a model that brought the classroom to the mall.  When we cut the ribbon at that first Simon Youth Academy, I don’t think any of us could have imagined the way the program would grow and flourish. But here we are, 15 years later.

Like a parent who blinks their eyes and sees the toddler they once knew standing before them as a teenager, I find myself doing the same with Simon Youth Foundation.  SYF now operates 23 Academies in 13 states. Thousands of students who were at-risk of dropping out of school now hold high school diplomas and possess the keys they need to keep unlocking opportunities for their futures.

My colleagues and I who have been involved with SYF since its inception often get asked to reveal the “secret formula” for the success of our Simon Youth Academies.  A 90% graduation rate seems almost too good to be true, especially for those who are immersed in the business of education reform.  But the success of our programs can be distilled down simply to this: students who want to learn, plus teachers who want to teach, working in an environment that supports learning, equals educational success.  It’s rooted in the wisdom of the one-room school house, and it is still applicable today, even if the schoolhouse is a shopping mall.

I am proud to have been a part of writing the SYF story from the beginning, and I look forward to being a part of the Foundation’s next chapters.


SYF Founder Michelle Bellej was one of the Simon Property Group employees who launched Simon Youth Foundation in 1998.  She is now Regional Vice President, Marketing for Simon Brand Ventures and Simon Property Group and continues to play an active role in the Foundation through her service as Secretary of the Simon Youth Foundation Board of Directors.

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