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.

In June, Huttner spilled the news of the Brennan donations to the press.

Although Jimenez had problems with the lack of supervision and poor implementation of curriculum in the first years of Life Skills Denver, he believes that Brennan is motivated by more than money. Now in his seventies and reportedly in poor health, Brennan is trying to leave a legacy, Jimenez suggests, and the Life Skills students are the unlikely beneficiaries. "There's no deception here," he says. "This is 'Let's do what's right for the kids.'"

Ada Diaz Kirby is one of the two original members still serving on Denver's Life Skills board, currently as its president. She acknowledges that the board wasn't active at first and made a mistake taking the former principal's word that things were going well. But now, she insists, they actually are. "At the end of the day, it's about saving kids that nobody else has been able to save," Diaz Kirby says. "We hear all these politicians like our governor talking about the dropout rate and how we need to save kids. As a community, let's focus on that and not how much White Hat is making. White Hat's heart is in the right place; they do everything they possibly can to help these kids. The company was founded on the premise of helping kids who aren't getting help anywhere else. White Hat is not the big bad wolf that people make them look like."

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?

But DPS boardmember Jill Conrad — the only one of the seven boardmembers to return Westword's repeated calls, and also the only boardmember to spend any time at the school before deciding to turn down its application — doesn't see it that way. "White Hat held the purse strings too tight for too long and didn't allow the local institution the flexibility to do what it needed to do," Conrad says. "Now, if this whole experience produces a situation where that company looks at its model and makes it less about profit and more about education, fine. But I'm not sure that's what I've seen to date from that corporation."

She remains troubled that Life Skills is managed by an out-of-state, for-profit company that doesn't have to account for how it spends millions of federal education dollars coming to Colorado. "I was concerned about the lax approach to calculating attendance, I was concerned about the overall model of the school, the governance and the financial structure, and the school not being flexible to support the needs of the student population, flexible enough at the local level," she says. "I felt that the corporate leadership at White Hat in Ohio is a model that does a disservice to the kids who have the kind of needs where you need to be making decisions at the local level. They weren't able to respond fast enough to improve. They had resources that were tied up at the central office and an unresponsive governing board in place."

Last fall, the DPS board sent another $1.8 million to Life Skills for the next school year, and upped the attendance requirement (but not as high as Santiago's personal goal of 75 percent). The board is expecting results. In February, it will again decide whether to renew the school's contract. (Earlier this year, the Colorado Springs board decided to renew the contract of the Life Skills there through 2010.)

"I do feel that the current leaders of the school and the current board have the potential to turn this school around," Conrad says. "Unfortunately, the leaders who are currently operating that school have only been there one year, and they were initially handed a school that could've been better to start with, sort of like 'too little too late.' Either accountability in the school-renewal process is going to mean something, or it is not. How many chances do you give a school that asks for a one-year extension and then another? We've now said they can have their extra year, so by next year, if they have again not met the goals that they helped to outline and articulate, it would be difficult for me to keep the school open."


Santiago starts his rounds at 9 a.m. every day. One recent Friday morning, he had to wake up a few students who'd dozed off at their cubicles. In the hallway, he saw a student with a backpack.

"Are you just getting here?" Santiago asked.

"No, I'm leaving," the student said.

"Why are you leaving?"

"Because it fucking sucks."

"Okay," Santiago said with a smile. "See you Monday."

"Fuck, no," the student responded.

Santiago rarely raises his voice with the students, and no matter how rude they are to him, he always says "please" and "thank you." A few days before, when a kid came in reeking of weed and was asked to empty his pockets, the off-duty officer found that he wasn't carrying any pot but did have a knife with a 3.5 inch blade — and under DPS rules, Santiago had to expel him. The kid got lippy, and the cop barked back in such a way that Santiago let him go, too.

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