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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.

He landed at Angevine Middle School in Lafayette as part of a literacy lab. His return to the classroom represented both a pay cut, which he could handle, and no chance to use his administrative skills, which he could not. So he looked around and found a one-year, grant-funded position as a math curriculum coordinator for DPS elementary classes. When that ended, he signed on as dean of students at South High School for the 2004-05 school year, but there wasn't much administrative work. He moved on to a slot as assistant principal for two elementary schools in Commerce City. The positions were each supposed to be half-time, but he wound up putting full-time hours in both.

"Every time I made a job switch, it was because it was a new challenge," Santiago says. "And I always told my bosses that I was looking and asked their opinions about the jobs. I never went behind their back; I just wanted to learn more. I wanted more experience."

All of that experience prepared him for his biggest challenge. In January 2006, he became principal of Life Skills Center of Denver, a job he'd found on the Colorado League of Charter Schools website.

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?

Before taking the position, he researched the curriculum and visited the school twice to talk with staff and students. He saw himself in the kids, who'd lost friends to prisons and cemeteries. He liked a lot of what he saw, but he didn't see any accountability. Students weren't accountable, employees weren't accountable. As part of their Life Skills program, the students were supposed to be working jobs outside of school — but if they didn't, no one gave them any grief. No one was suggesting that kids go on to vocational schools or college. In fact, no one seemed to care if the kids came to school at all. And if they didn't show up, no one called to check up on them.

"I was very surprised," Santiago remembers. "I took the job because it challenged me in every aspect of my knowledge and abilities; it was in such chaos. I haven't had an easy life, and I know our students haven't had it easy, either. That's why I have to be here, to show them there is life outside of poverty, there is life outside of the struggle. That's what I want to teach these kids. I had a choice to go one way or the other. In a way, I relate to these kids — but I had a strong family behind me that helped me see my way out of it. A lot of our kids don't have that support."

Santiago quickly brought both a support system and accountability to Life Skills. He let staffers know that things were changing. He got rid of the private security firm and brought in off-duty Denver cops to monitor the school. He had a wall built and moved the principal's office so that it would be the first thing that people saw when they entered the building. And he put a bowl of chocolates on his desk as bait to induce kids to come in and talk.

He reviewed the work of the six state-licensed lab teachers who oversaw the computer curriculum and hired a master teacher to oversee those positions. He evaluated the special-education teacher, the English-language acquisition teacher, the vocation specialist and the family advocate (a licensed social worker). Ultimately, only one full-time staffer stayed on. Life Skills also has a four-hour-a-week social worker and a four-hour-a-week nurse whose time it purchases from DPS; every week, it has four hours with a speech language pathologist and eight with a psychologist.

Santiago consulted with White Hat while he was making the changes, but he says the company isn't heavy-handed with its management, and the same holds true for the six-member board that oversees the school.

Santiago didn't just change responsibilities for staff; he changed the school's culture for students. Now if a student didn't show up for school, someone called him. If a student was having problems, someone called him. Santiago estimates that the staff makes about 500 calls a week — which averages out to almost two for each of the school's 269 enrolled students.

Before Santiago came on board, Life Skills had three sessions a day. He cut it to two — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — because the overlap of students coming and going was too distracting. He encouraged students who live in dangerous neighborhoods to come in the afternoon so that they didn't have to catch the bus in the dark. He did the same for students who work late-night shifts. And if a student couldn't come to school because her child was sick or needed daycare, Life Skills started trying to locate those services.

For students who lived with their parents, there were parent/teacher conferences. For students who'd moved out — or were thrown out — of their parent's homes, Life Skills helped them find food and shelter. Santiago started serving lunch at school, burgers off the dollar menu of fast-food joints or cheap fried chicken from the grocery store.

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