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 enrolled at the Contemporary Learning Academy in northwest Denver, one of Denver Public Schools' "alternative" schools. But he made the mistake of wearing red his first day there, and some Crips from Montbello who were attending CLA assumed he was Bloods. Justin had beef with these black kids from day one at CLA, and he soon stopped going.

Then one day the cops showed up at his house and accused him of selling mari-juana to younger kids. They searched the place, found two ounces in the basement, and cited him for possession with intent to distribute, even though Justin said the dope was just for personal use. It was the first time he'd been arrested. On the way to the station, one of the officers ripped up the original ticket and wrote a new one just for possession; he didn't want to stick the juvenile with a felony charge.

It was through his probation officer that Justin learned about Life Skills Center of Denver, a charter school at 1000 Cherokee Street. The school had only been open a year and a half when Justin enrolled in January 2005. He was seventeen and still a freshman.

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?


For the Cleveland Scene's coverage of White Hat's Ohio operations, click here and here.

At Life Skills, there was no classroom instruction. Students sat in cubicles studying on computers, and used those same computers to take tests and turn in assignments. Justin quickly saw that he could do whatever the fuck he wanted at Life Skills, since no one seemed to care if the kids studied or cut class to smoke, drink, make out, go to the store, whatever. "This is school?" he remembers thinking after his first day there.

It seemed like the teachers were always coming and going, getting hired and quitting. A couple were "hoochies," and older Life Skills students claimed they'd run into these hoochie teachers at clubs. The school's security guard, who was from a private firm, didn't bother watching the screens that showed surveillance video from around the school. Justin once asked the guard if he could hold his gun. The guard wouldn't hand it over, but he did unload it and show Justin and his friends how to cock the weapon.

The school's principal didn't check up on the kids, either, and mostly kicked back in his office. One day he asked Justin and a few other students to help a friend move. While he and the other kids were earning a few bucks, they were also earning school credits, because the principal let them stay clocked in at the computers.

This was not how school life was supposed to be at Life Skills.

In the spring of 2002, a half-dozen community activists started searching for a new educational alternative for DPS dropouts, mostly minority kids from low-income homes and single-parent families who'd had no success in traditional schools. Kids like Justin. They looked around the country for model programs and found Life Skills and its parent company, White Hat Management, which David Brennan had founded in Akron, Ohio, in 1998. Four years later, White Hat had fifteen schools, seven of them Life Skills Centers.

"There were just a couple companies like it," remembers Pierre Jimenez, an activist who'd worked for then-governor Bill Owens at the time and later went on to a job with White Hat. "What we were looking for was a school that specialized in the high-risk population — dropouts, per se." The six, who'd formed a volunteer board to oversee a new school, invited Brennan to speak to them, and then they went to Ohio to see Life Skills in action.

"Initially, we were just happy to see a new building with clean equipment and people who were genuinely happy to be working with these kids," Jimenez says. "The curriculum was designed specifically for students who were significantly behind academically, to create an environment to remediate those deficits. Life Skills was able to zero in on where a kid was functioning and then begin on the remediation, figuring where he was and where he needed to be."

But the curriculum wasn't the only thing that made Life Skills attractive to the board. The company had some real capital behind it, which made it more likely that the Denver Board of Education would approve it as a charter school. Charters were introduced in Colorado over a decade ago, and today there are 140 in operation — all working with the approval of the school districts in which they are located, all collecting money that otherwise would go to those districts. "In some respects, it's kind of a low-risk venture on the district's part," says Jim Griffin, director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. "If they succeed and they do a great job, they're making a difference, and if they don't succeed, you can at least say you gave them a shot — and you gave them a shot at something that no one else is trying."

The DPS board wasn't entirely enthusiastic about the Life Skills proposal, Jimenez remembers, but still granted a three-year contract. As a charter school, Life Skills would get about $6,000 in federal education money for every student who enrolled. But even before the school opened in August 2003, White Hat pumped more than $700,000 into the new building it had rented for the school on Cherokee.

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