Once upon a time, going to school in the mall might’ve seemed like a dream to many teens. For some students in Vermont, it’s their new reality: As of last week, attendees of Burlington High School are now going to class in an abandoned Macy’s department store in an outdoor pedestrian mall. Last year, officials in the district found high levels of toxic polychlorinated bipehnyls, or PCBs, in the high school; students were learning at home anyway because of the pandemic. While the district figures out how to address the PCB problem, Burlington High School signed a short-term lease at the former Macy’s, which closed in 2018. The pictures of the new school are pretty remarkable, with crisscrossing escalators, a cafeteria set up in front of a Michael Kors display, and those little desk chairs scattered around a giant Levi’s backdrop.
(The above photos are by Cat Cutillo for Seven Days.)
This isn’t such an unusual measure—nor is it a pandemic-era innovation. Since the Great Recession, many malls around the country have been losing tenants, often anchor ones. But it turns out that former department store spaces, which are generally more than 100,000 square feet, are a fairly sensible location for schools.
Like the Burlington school, a high school in Joplin, Missouri, was forced to relocate when its building became uninhabitable—destroyed by a record-breaking tornado in May 2011. With only a few months before the new school year began, officials didn’t have time to build and decided to move into the former site of a Venture department store in an abandoned mall. The school’s renovation included a student-run coffee shop, a health club rather than a gym, and a “genius bar” for technology issues. This was the temporary home of the school for a few years before they moved to their permanent location in 2014.
The unorthodox setting has made malls a particularly attractive option for relocating vocational schools. At the Montgomery Preparatory Academy for Career Technologies in Alabama—which opened in the former space of a Parisian department store in 2016—the students who are studying trades helped finish parts of their school’s construction. The school doesn’t have a typical layout but uses the 65,000 square feet to create spaces that mimic parts of manufacturing plants and other workplaces, and students clock in and out. The relocation was part of a district plan to give the students more space.
Another career-focused school in Carrollton, Kentucky, opened in 2015 in a converted strip mall. ILEAD Academy is designed to prepare student for jobs in the Golden Triangle area of Kentucky, focusing on manufacturing, engineering, and technology. The school is next to a Kroger, which has given the students unusual learning opportunities like building catapults to launch old fruits and vegetables donated by the supermarket in the parking lot.
Gem Prep: Pocatello in Chubbuck, Idaho, moved into a mall that was otherwise open but failing. It occupies what was once a Sears, one of Pine Ridge Mall’s former anchor stores. A Planet Fitness has taken over another space designed for an anchor tenant, but two of the remaining anchors, a J.C. Penney and the Western wear store C-A-L Ranch, remain. In Idaho, charter schools do not receive tax money, so a nonprofit called Building Hope, which offers assistance to charter schools, purchased the space and is leasing it to Gem Prep. The space the school previously occupied did not have a cafeteria or gymnasium. The larger location allowed the school to expand from K to sixth grade to K–12 and add second classrooms for some grades.
The pandemic has exacerbated the existing business struggles of malls, leading to a downturn in foot traffic and an increase in e-commerce, resulting in an acceleration in closures. A 2020 report from Coresight Research anticipates that 25 percent of existing malls will close in the next three to five years. As this happens, mall owners are considering drastic measures for salvaging their real estate. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that Simon Property Group, the largest mall owner in the U.S., was in talks with Amazon to lease former department store properties for distribution hubs. This was a measure Simon had resisted taking earlier, as malls count on the department store spaces as traffic drivers for the remaining stores; if a department store closes, replacing it with another retailer or a gym or entertainment complex is a better option. But the availability of large, low-cost, flexible retail space offered some interesting opportunities for experimentation, including by moving in elder-care facilities and churches.
Or schools. The new Burlington High School, a temporary tenant of the former Macy’s, very much still has the look and feel of a mall. The lighting is oddly stagey and books are lined up on backlit display shelves. Large spaces are awkwardly sliced into classroom-sized slabs, and floor patterns designed to guide foot traffic between clothing departments remain. Between the makeshift nature of the school and the people in masks, it does, as Twitter users were quick to note, have a pretty post-apocalyptic feel. But you have to admire the invention, too.
A few years back, I walked through the remains of my own hometown mall in Lanesborough, Massachusetts, on Christmas Eve. The Target and Regal Cinema remained, but otherwise it was empty, gated storefronts as far as the eye could see. The former Old Navy had been turned into a massive arena for something called Truly Independent Wrestling. It was eerie, but there was also something peaceful about it, as if, in the wake of all that frantic teenage commerce, the space was returning to nature. I don’t know that what’s next for malls will be an improvement, but public-serving reuse isn’t a bad solution for now. Hopefully, when students are still going to school in the mall a couple of months from now, taking Algebra II in the denim department still has some novelty.