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.

Unfortunately, Jimenez says, the company back in Ohio paid more attention to the physical setup than the makeup of the potential student population. "There's a huge Latino population out here," he points out. "You go to Akron, it's reversed. They didn't seem to recognize that. Their marketing materials had predominantly black students, and you would think they would try to appeal to a wider audience. In my opinion, it should've been a bigger emphasis." He and the rest of the board had told White Hat that many of the students would have limited English, but it took two years before Denver's Life Skills got an English as a Second Language component.

At the end of 2005, Life Skills was nearing the completion of its three-year contract with DPS and getting ready to reapply. By then, the school had received a total of about $5.8 million in funding and had graduated only about a hundred kids, according to DPS figures.

On the one hand, Life Skills was taking kids who otherwise might have dropped out of school entirely, kids no other school would take because they didn't have enough credits for their age, they had long disciplinary records, or they were single parents who couldn't meet traditional school guidelines. On the other hand, Life Skills wasn't living up to the goal of 60 percent attendance, which the DPS board and Life Skills had agreed on back when the charter was granted.

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.

Even so, in February 2006, the DPS board voted to give Life Skills a fourth year.

But this was not the same old Life Skills. There was a new principal at the school: Santiago Lopez.

Santiago knows where the Life Skills students are coming from because he was once there. His parents met at Manual High School, where his mother earned a diploma but his father did not. One of Santiago's earliest memories is of his father taking him and his older brother to a bar in Globeville, where his dad would fill one of his hands with warm cashews and the other with quarters for the pool table, which Santiago could barely reach. While he and his brother played pool, their father got smashed.

It wasn't long before Dad left the family altogether for the bottle. Concerned about providing for her two sons, Santiago's mother went back to school and earned a degree in education. Santiago remembers sitting beside his mom, coloring through her classes at Metro State. His father came back into the picture just long enough to create a little sister, then left his wife to raise the kids alone. "She had to worry about daycare and financially being able to both raise us and pay for school," Santiago says. "Having three kids and trying to go to school would be almost impossible. College may not have been as expensive then, but if you put everything in perspective, it was probably just as difficult."

With money in short supply, the family moved around a lot — more than twenty times, by Santiago's count. But his mother has seven sisters and a brother spread around the metro area, and they helped to create a strong support system. And after Santiago's mother started teaching, things got easier. She was a first-grade teacher at Greenlee Elementary School when Santiago enrolled at Abraham Lincoln High School in southwest Denver. By then, he was a class clown who wasn't afraid to talk back to teachers, and he frequently landed in the principal's office. He got good grades, but he also ditched class a lot. When he cut, though, he usually wound up in his mother's classroom — tutoring her students.

School wasn't as easy for his siblings. His brother barely made it through high school, and his sister got pregnant at fourteen. Still, she managed to earn her diploma from the now-defunct Alternative Center for Education in Adams County.

While friends got into drugs and gangs, Santiago got jobs. At sixteen, he started working at Elitch's every summer. He also worked at a factory making the cardboard rolls that tape wraps around — a job that solidified his determination to go to college. He graduated with honors from Lincoln in 1990 and then, inspired by his mother, earned a bachelor's degree in education at the University of Northern Colorado.

Santiago returned to Denver for his first classroom gig, as a computer teacher at Remington (now on DPS's closure list). Next came a two-year stint teaching a combined second- and third-grade class at Greenlee Elementary. His mother was no longer there; she'd earned her master's and was now a principal at a different school.

In 1998, Santiago got his first charter-school experience when he helped open Wyatt-Edison (it's one of six current Denver charters, including Life Skills, run by an out-of-state management company). He started out teaching third grade, then took a position overseeing four other teachers, then filled in for Wyatt-Edison's assistant principal, who had medical problems. After Santiago earned his own master's degree in educational administration from the University of Phoenix, he took a job developing curriculum and training teachers for Wyatt-Edison's management company, which is based in New York. But in August 2004, the company did a round of layoffs, and Santiago's job disappeared.

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