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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.

To make sure students met the work requirement, Santiago put the name of those slacking off on a "wanted" list and let them know they'd be hunted down. For students who didn't have papers, he let volunteer work qualify for credit.

Through a new partnership with Goodwill, the school got another staffer — an employment specialist who helps students find jobs and careers. "The greatest quality is their dedication to each other, and also the things that they've overcome in their life to even be here to give themselves another shot at a diploma," says Goodwill's Bryan Pontius, who teaches students how to write resumés and act on job interviews. "They use their life experiences in their work. As employees, people won't be able to pull things over their head, because they'll see it coming from a mile away. No one can take advantage of these kids. But it's a bit of a double-edged sword, because due to the circumstances of what they've been through, they don't always deal with conflict in a healthy way. It's often confrontational."


The changes made a difference outside the school, too.

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?

Justin remembers one incident that was like the classic scene in Boyz N the Hood when the college football recruiter comes to Ricky's house in Compton — only this time it was a Redstone College recruiter for the school's construction-management program who arrived at Justin's house on the southwest side, where the ghetto bird was flying overhead, just like it does in the movie. After the recruiter told Justin that he could attend the school at night and get paid for doing construction work during the day, Justin signed up to go there once he graduated, ideally in the fall of 2007. And then he walked her out to her car past the homies on the front porch drinking 40s.

"Hey, I want to go to college, too. Hook me up with a scholarship," they said, quoting the movie almost verbatim.

The recruiter gave Justin hope. He was warming to Santiago, even though Life Skills now expected more of him. Much more. The school's social worker pointed out that most of his fights stemmed from incidents on the bus, and the school helped Justin land a job at a Village Inn so that he could buy a car. That didn't work out because Justin punched his superior in the face — not every fight started on a bus — but he moved on to a job at a body shop and managed to get a car. Soon he was working for UPS. When an error in the payroll department left him without money to put gas in his tank or food in his belly, a Life Skills teacher helped him track down the missing money. And in the meantime, Santiago handed him $40 for gas and groceries and walked off. Justin couldn't believe it.

"Who does that?" he wondered. "I didn't even ask him for anything."

When Justin got his money, he repaid Santiago the $40.

Santiago was making a difference. But was it enough?

This past February, Life Skills' contract was again up for renewal at DPS, and word started spreading among the students that the school might be closing its doors.

Because Life Skills is considered an alternative school, it's eligible to be evaluated on more than its CSAP performance. But until Santiago came on board, the school had failed to implement the testing at all, and a few years' worth of results are necessary to demonstrate any significant change. So instead, DPS focused on the charter school's attendance rate — pegging it at 34 percent for the 2005-06 school year, while Life Skills had it at 59 percent.

This time, though, the board's concern wasn't only with the Denver school, but also with its parent company, which by now owned a total of fifty schools spread throughout Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Colorado (including a second Life Skills in Colorado Springs). In Ohio, a state audit had revealed that boardmembers at White Hat schools were often paid double because they stacked school meetings, and that they were allegedly abusing the school's credit-card accounts. And all twelve of the Life Skills Centers in Ohio are currently listed by the state's department of education as being on "academic watch" (the equivalent of a D on a grade scale) or "academic emergency" (the equivalent of an F).

The DPS board voted against extending the Life Skills contract. The school appealed that decision to the Colorado Board of Education, whose vice-chairman, former Congressman Bob Schaffer, was among those who ordered the DPS board to reconsider. His vote was consistent with Schaffer's strong support of charter schools. "The only objective here is the best interest of poor, underserved schoolchildren in Denver," Schaffer says. "I'm always going to fight for those who are bereft of sufficient opportunity in public education."

Rather than go another round with the state, in May the DPS board decided to give the charter school another year to operate.

The state board's role caught the attention of Michael Huttner, director of the political watchdog group ProgressNowAction, who noticed that Schaffer had failed to acknowledge that he'd received $2,000 from David Brennan, founder of White Hat, for his 2004 Senate campaign against Pete Coors in the Republican primary. And in the weeks after his vote, Schaffer collected another $4,600 in campaign contributions from Brennan and his wife for his current Senate campaign. (Steve Schuck, a real-estate developer who's on the board of the Life Skills in Colorado Springs, also donated to the campaigns of four school-board members who backed the charter application there, according to the Colorado Springs Independent.)

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