CRUISING THE SHOPPING MALL FOR A BETTER EDUCATION

Students will soon be able to shop for an education at the Mall of America.

The nation's largest entertainment and retail center here will begin offering classes or high school and college students next month.

The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and five Twin Cities public school districts have joined forces to open a satellite center - complete with eight classrooms and two computer labs - next to Bloomingdale's, in space donated by the mall.

Although St. Thomas is targeting adults who work or shop there, the public schools are designing new courses around the mall itself, so high school students can use it as part of their studies.

Supporters say they're trying to make education more accessible and relevant to students of all ages.

``I think about it as a laboratory for us to try some new ideas,'' says Mary Ann Nelson, an assistant superintendent in St. Louis Park who is helping to run the project. ``And yes, there's a lot of retail out there, but it's a thriving community as well ... there's a whole rich world of experience.''

Not everyone is happy.

``Completely nuts,'' says David Tilsen, a former member of the Minneapolis school board. ``The idea that we're sending high school students out to the largest commercial shopping center in the world is just crazy to me.''

The project has been in the works for years, since the mall was on the drawing board. The first plan was to build an elementary school for children of employees, but money ran short.

Planners decided to start with about 50 high school students at the end of the month and one or two college classes by mid-February. About 40 high school students had registered as of last week, although the classrooms themselves are still under construction.

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