NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Students who have dropped out of school are getting a second chance at a diploma in an unlikely place- a shopping mall.
Tucked inside Opry Mills off Briley Parkway in Donelson is a new high school academy that opened last August.
From the outside, though, you'd never think students were taking classes inside the mall.
Students at the Academy at Opry Mills enter through a security entrance, and they never have to enter the shopping area.
The stories they tell are about overcoming challenges.
Twenty-year-old Jose Aguilara said, “I dropped out of school four years ago to help my mom out for economic things.”
He says things went downhill until he finally decided to finish school.
“I joined a gang,” said Aguilara. “There were a lot of problems, you know. I came back to succeed. I want to go to college. I want to be somebody.”
Now, Aguilara is getting the chance, along with more than 100 other students, in the Academy at Opry Mills.
They take traditional courses, and up to 20 electives are offered online.
Students range in age from 17 to 21, but they're not in adult education.
Principal Larry Sanders, said, “Oh no, we don't do any GEDs. They have to earn 22 credits. This is a regular high school. They have to pass the Gateway (exams).”
The students are treated more like college students.
They work at their own pace. If they can't make it to class, they have the option of distance learning using a computer at home or in a public library.
The students each have different reasons why traditional high school didn't work for them.
Trovella Lade said, “I became pregnant and I was behind on my attendance, and this school helped out a lot.”
Administrators emphasize college.
The names of the 56 students who graduated in December in the school's first class decorate the walls.
Still, Principal Saunders says some students fall off the radar one day.
“You feel like they're going to continue to meet the requirements,” he said, “but all of the sudden, you just don't see them anymore. You call and their phone is disconnected.”
Many of the students do have high aspirations.
Lade says she hopes to go to college to become a nurse, and Aguilara plans to become an engineer or join the Air Force.
They will graduate with school's second class in May.
The Academy has a partner school on Bransford Avenue, called The Academy at Old Cockrill.
The Academy's Web site says the schools are not alternative schools and are not for students who are just unhappy with their present school.
Students attend The Academy by invitation only.
Scholarships are available to students.