The interiors don’t vary much from place to place. The centers of the rooms are open, surrounded by enclosed instruction areas. Glass panels allow everyone to see the learning happening around them.
“It’s a pretty simple recipe, but those can be the best, just like chocolate chip cookies,” says Tres Simi of the 100 or so Learn4Life locations spread between California, Ohio and Michigan. All of them have roughly the same design.
What matters more, he says, is what goes on inside the classrooms, where teens facing significant life challenges are given the chance to continue learning despite the circumstances they face. So while part of Simi’s role as vice president of facilities for Lifelong Learning—a related program—entails recreating the same spaces for partner schools, the rewards never get old, he says.
“Our students are amazing. They have an incredible amount of determination and courage,” Simi says. “Most of them walk through our doors at 18, are either a former dropout or at-risk, and are unable to attend school five days a week. They want to learn but might be struggling with maintaining a full-time job, parenting, homelessness, hunger or have special education or ELL needs.”
Simi isn’t just creating learning spaces, he helps create haven with a personalized learning model and wrap-around services to help meet basic needs such as food, job training and counseling, he adds.
“Because we put students at the center of everything we do, we’re able to help thousands of former dropout/at-risk students graduate high school and gain the confidence they need for a successful future,” Simi says.
Back to school
Founded by two businessmen—one of whom is Simi’s father—who wanted to solve the dropout problem in their community, Learn4Life opened its first nonprofit public school in Lancaster, California, in 2001. As the network of schools grew to serve almost 50,000 students, Lifelong Learning was established to continue providing administrative support to partner schools including Learn4Life. This allows school staff and teachers to put more focus on student learning, Simi explains.
Learn4Life reports 60 percent of learners are 17 or older and too old or ineligible to attend traditional high school; 87 percent are minority students; 80 percent are from low income homes; and 7 percent are pregnant or parenting.
“Our partner schools serve the students that others have given up on,” Simi says.
To date, Learn4Life has graduated more than 21,000 students from its program, according to its website. But the challenge of giving students a good education often requires a simple approach to the settings where it happens.
Since 2004, Simi’s has been scouting new sites and supervising buildouts. Giving students a safe, flexible and successful learning environment has two major components—a personalized learning model and a functional facility layout, he explains.
The interior is much like the former one-room schoolhouse approach and students come in for designated one-on-one appointments with their teachers. Teachers’ desks are placed around the perimeter of the large learning area in the center of the facility. Individual student desks are situated in the middle where students work on assignments independently.
Each school ranges from 6,000 to 20,000 square feet and is typically built into retail centers. Innovative modular interiors by DIRTT Environmental Solutions are a staple of the buildouts. They frame the setting and create the needed visuality and can be easily rearranged if needed, Simi adds.
He collaborates with staff to find sites and determine how much square footage is needed—typically in distressed areas where there are high dropout rates and socioeconomic challenges. He also looks for locations that are near public transportation so students can get to school. Software provides demographic information to meet these criteria.
Message and method
One issue with choosing retail centers for the schools is that those locations are typically not zoned for educational use. So even before he approaches a landlord or property manager, Simi must meet with municipal officials about what’s needed to move forward.
Getting a conditional use waiver often requires approaching planning or zoning boards in public meetings, and Simi has honed the message to highlight the social and economic benefits that come from getting students back on the educational track. By saving taxpayer expenses and increasing tax revenues, Simi estimates Learn4Life schools has so far created $8.7 billion in economic benefits during its tenure.
Simi also has to reinforce that the schools do not operate in a traditional manner.
“We’re a charter school, but not one where buses are dropping off 300 kids at 7:30 in the morning,” Simi says. “Instead, students meet one-on-one with their teachers for about three or four hours each week, then work at home to complete assignments. They’re welcome to access the school center for tutoring, labs, job skills training or to study, but it’s not a requirement.”
With the variances and conditional use approvals in place, Simi then works with property owners to either economize on lease rates or amortize the conversion expenses. Any money saved can be channeled to future schools.
“What’s helped is our size and recognition, and the financials that show what we can do,” he says. “We’ll also remind owners they’re helping their community out by sharing in the program’s successes.”
Serving up new facilities at Lifelong Learning was something Simi came to after working in food service.
For several years, he heard his father talk about student success stories with evident emotion. Simi was looking for a career change with a culture and company mission that was about helping others, so he joined the team.
His father has since retired, but Simi is no less impressed with the passion and dedication everyone at Lifelong Learning brings to the mission.
“Being in this position is incredibly fulfilling to me, as I’m able to designate the next beacon of hope in a community. It’s taught me a lot about gratitude, being connected and meeting the needs of a community,” Simi adds.