Life Skills Offers Last-Chance High

Justin Martinez was raised in the school of hard knocks, but Life Skills is his last hope for a diploma.

Justin Martinez missed school — again — on November 2. But this time, the nineteen-year-old's absence was excused. He had to go to Pueblo to see his father. In the morgue.

Justin's parents had split when he was just a kid. Justin and his brothers stayed with their mother in Denver; his father wound up in Pueblo. Although Justin had spent summers with his dad when he was younger, he hadn't seen him much lately. But none of his uncles would go identify their brother's body, so the job fell to him. Since he was too upset to drive, his godmother drove him down; Justin's little brother tagged along for support.

At the morgue, the coroner rolled out a body bag with a tag that read "John Doe." But the minute the coroner unzipped the bag, Justin saw his father's face.

Justin Martinez and friends outside of Life Skills Center of Denver.
Anthony Camera
Justin Martinez and friends outside of Life Skills Center of Denver.
Santiago Lopez has been turning Life Skills around — but is it too little, too late?
Anthony Camera
Santiago Lopez has been turning Life Skills around — but is it too little, too late?


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Later, he went to the spot where his father's body had been found the day after Halloween, near some bushes five or six feet from a bus stop. The police were saying the death was suspicious, but probably not a murder.

Justin couldn't get his father's face out of his mind. He suspected foul play: He knew his father fought a lot and drank even more, had many women and even more enemies. Justin locked himself in his bedroom for hours, lying there with his eyes closed, opening them only to cry. Over the next three weeks, he only made it to school once or twice. He'd been hoping to finally graduate in December, but now that looked out of reach.

The day before Thanksgiving break, Santiago Lopez, the principal at Life Skills Center of Denver, looked up and saw Justin walking into the alternative high school, his head hung low. A photo of his father was pinned to his jacket. Justin had a fresh haircut and new sneakers, but his eyes were puffy, and there was still swelling on his forehead where someone had hit him with a bottle a month before.

Santiago turned on his computer to take a look at Justin's earned-credits report. At Life Skills, one of the requirements for getting a diploma is that a student have an attendance rate higher than 80 percent for the three months leading up to graduation. That's a requirement that Santiago can waive in extreme circumstances — and Justin's would seem to qualify. Still, Justin needed nine more classes to graduate, and the most he'd ever finished in a month was four.

This last semester had been rough even before Justin's father died. His mother had broken up with her boyfriend, and Justin had been working more hours at his janitor gig at Eagleton Elementary School to help pay the bills. His older brothers, twins Joshua and James, weren't around. One had disappeared, then resurfaced in a rehab facility for drug addicts; the other, who'd been rolling with a gang, had just been sentenced to four years in prison.

Compared to the rest of life's bullshit, missing December's graduation didn't seem like such a big deal to Justin, especially because he wouldn't be kicked out of Life Skills for skipping school or being too old. Students range from previously home-schooled kids to former dropouts, single parents to night-shift workers, and they all take classes at their own pace, earning credits off a computer-based curriculum and taking as long as they need to fulfill the requirements for a diploma.

"You know we're here for you, whatever you need," Santiago told Justin.

Life Skills is there for him now, but it may not be much longer.

Life Skills is the last in a long line of schools that Justin has attended.

As a kid, he bounced around public schools all over Denver's west side. His mother kept moving the family; the only places she could afford to rent always came with pain-in-the-ass landlords, leaking roofs, plumbing or some other problem, and they were always in rough neighborhoods.

By the fall of 2002, Justin was a freshman at West High School. But he didn't spend much time inside. For one thing, Mexican students would give him dirty looks. They didn't know that he couldn't speak Spanish — like his mother, Justin was born here — they just thought that he refused to, that he'd sold out la raza and thought he was better than the rest of them. Justin preferred to hang around outside, talking to girls, selling dime bags and hustling car stereos — chasing fast money instead of an education, always carrying a knife or a gun, never books or a backpack. Although he never got jumped into a gang, Justin ran with plenty of people who did, and always repped west side when people asked where he was from.

After just a few months at West, Justin dropped out. But he soon saw that hustling full-time was more work than it was worth.

"I knew that if I didn't go back to school, I would never make it in life," Justin says. "I wanted to make more money. The money that I was making, I wasn't making it the right way, anyway, so sooner or later I knew I was going to get caught. So I thought I might as well just face the facts and quit the bullshit before something bad really happened, getting locked up or something."

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