Simon Youth Foundation: Preparing next generation systems thinkers

By partnering with public schools, Simon Youth Foundation supports efforts across the nation to improve the academic dropout rate, and increase college accessibility for students at risk of dropping out of high school
By: and | August 27, 2020

James E. Samels is President and CEO of The Education Alliance. Arlene Lieberman is Senior Consultant of The Education Alliance.

Phoebe Tickell, London based Microbiologist systems thinker put it this way:

“All of the practice you may have done around systems thinking, community care, holding complexity, is coming to bear right now. This virus is forcing us to see in systems.”

In the wake of the global pandemic, public health officials and biomedical thought leaders suggest we should be better prepared for the next virus by immersing students in big picture problem solving and, more specifically, in systems thinking.

In “Systems Thinking: What, Why, When, Where, and How,” Michael Goodman wrote: “This approach includes the willingness to see a situation more fully, to recognize that we are interrelated, to acknowledge that there are often multiple interventions to a problem, and to champion interventions that may not be popular”.

For all its success stories, the American education system has yet to fully develop its capacity for systems thinking, teaching, and learning. Enter the Simon Youth Foundation (SYF) with its positive message to students facing challenges in school: “We see a graduate.” By partnering with public schools, Simon Youth Foundation supports efforts across the nation to improve the academic dropout rate, and increase college accessibility for students at risk of dropping out of high school. In so doing, SYF Academies expose students to a new wave of dynamic systems thinking – a special perspective that prioritizes ingenuity, resourcefulness, resilience, critical thinking, and big picture problem-solving. Students come to SYF Academies with grit; SYF helps it grow and flourish.

As one SYF Seattle Academy graduate reported:

“Being in the Simon Youth Academy helps me understand what is ahead. We have classes that I feel are ahead of most other schools…. It feels like we learn things instead of just memorizing them, which I think is a useful thing to have for my future.”

To make all this happen, the Foundation has invested resources in reimagining, repurposing and transforming retail shopping mall space into modern public school learning classrooms and labs. These SYF public school campuses have given rise to a new generation of successful systems thinking graduates.

Uniquely, SYF serves a cohort of youth for whom conventional educational approaches and regular school hours don’t work. These students often drop out of their traditional high school because of economic disadvantage, homelessness, pregnancy, bullying, and serious illness – and school environments that can’t, don’t or won’t allow for their circumstances.

While the Foundation uses data to inform strategy, each Academy is able to access, extrapolate, and apply their own local set of student feedback data.

SYF Academies serve as extensions of local public school districts in providing students with a school of choice characterized by an alternative, flexible nurturing learning environment that emphasizes individualized learning plans, academic support, and small, less intimidating class sizes. These SYF public classes are led by compassionate, student centered teachers, staff, and specialized social emotional education professionals who create a welcoming learning atmosphere housed in inviting facilities.

One Simon Youth Academy student at Burlington High School in Massachusetts reported:

“I love going to school and being with everyone. Ever since starting, my motivation for school has gone way up; having a job and school has really changed me in a good way.  It’s giving me more of the role of being responsible, because I now have a job and school to take care of, and I really enjoy it. Now that might be strange for a 17-year-old boy to be saying, but it’s true, and I wouldn’t have this mindset without you….  You take the time to make sure we succeed in life and academically… The enthusiasm in the classroom really intrigues me to learn more, to listen, and to want to pay attention… I used to think I wouldn’t get into college until Simon Youth Academy.”

SYF has integrated systems thinking into its holistic development and pedagogical philosophy to create best teaching and learning practices. These best practices help SYF students transform into successful career and college-ready high school graduates. Beyond graduation, SYF supports its college-ready graduates in their pursuit of postsecondary opportunities through SYF’s national scholarship program.

Simon Youth Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer J. Michael Durnil shared this special reflection:

“The goal is to bring students who have or will drop out of high school and provide them with a path to success. Through recognizing the whole student, I think SYF provides that refuge and a place where a student feels like they belong. Important for us, too, is that the teachers feel like they belong. One of the main distinctions of the academies is a focus among the teachers on ‘the whole student.”

Arlene Lieberman is Senior Consultant of The Education Alliance and Senior Associate, Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law.

James E. Samels is President and CEO of The Education Alliance and Senior Partner in the law firm of Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law.