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"We want it to be a learning experience and not a street experience, because they already get enough of that," Santiago says. "It's the same thing for the officers as it is for the teachers: There's a niche with our population, and working with them is not for everybody."
During Santiago's tenure, there have been no busts for guns or drugs. Two kids were sent to other schools because they brought knives to Life Skills. There have been three fights, all between girls, and one vehicular assault between boys. Both Santiago and his students say that Life Skills kids just don't give each other as much shit as kids at public schools.
"You just look at everybody else and know they have problems, just like you. That's why we're all here," one Life Skills student says.
One former student is doing 180 years for unloading an AK-47 on a residential street and hitting two girls with stray bullets ("Girl Crazy," August 17, 2006). Another made headlines earlier this year when the body of her missing baby was found. But some kids who have graduated Life Skills have gone on to college, and others report successes on many levels.
The school has a regular 10 a.m. smoke break. After one recent break, a friend whom Justin calls "Loco" snagged some hot sauce off of the receptionist's desk and put it in his pocket.
"Hey, Santiago," Loco said. "Which bar does your Dad work at?"
"Why?" Santiago wanted to know.
"Because I want to go pick a fight with him."
"Trust me, you don't want to do that," Santiago said. His father hasn't hit the bottle in more than 25 years, and now brings snacks from the food bank to the Life Skills kids each week.
"I'm taking off," another student told Santiago.
"Because my girlfriend's dad and her brother got in a fight and she got in the middle of it, and one of them hit her in the face."
"Did they call the cops?" Santiago asked.
"I don't know."
"Do you want to call the cops?" Santiago asked.
"No," the student said, as an off-duty cop shook his head in disappointment.
The cop moved on to the computer lab. "Do you guys need to use the restroom?" he asked. In Life Skills' continuing efforts to keep graffiti off the walls, all male students are accompanied to the bathroom. Last year, Santiago tried doing away with this rule. But when the ink came back on the walls, the policy was revived.
While Santiago can control some things on the local level, others are over his head — like the ugly gray polo shirt that Life Skills used to make students wear. Santiago hated the uniform as much as the kids did, but it was a corporate policy he couldn't change. So instead, he used it to teach kids another life lesson: You may have to wear things you don't like from time to time, particularly for work. Life Skills has since changed its uniform to brightly colored T-shirts that proclaim "MY SCHOOL MY CHOICE."
Every little thing helps. Although Santiago is no longer feeding kids off the dollar menu, he's looking into federally subsidized lunch programs that they may qualify for. And at least the state has taken up the issue of dropouts, with Governor Bill Ritter hosting a two-day education summit this week, the "Colorado Dropout Prevention, Retention and Recovery Summit," that will focus on ways to cut Colorado's high-school dropout rate in half over the next ten years.
Santiago is proud of the part he's already played in helping kids stay in school. "A change was made — granted, a little bit later than it should've been, but a change was made for the better," Santiago says. "And my life, the way I live, I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that."
He can make a difference for kids like Justin, who didn't get the breaks he did as a kid. "My older brother was with us," Santiago points out. "He was helping us out, not necessarily as a father figure, but an adult male in the house. Justin doesn't have that. Justin is the adult male in the house."
Justin originally wanted to graduate last spring and move on to construction college, but he just couldn't finish classes fast enough. And now it doesn't look like he'll make December, either. So he's focused on next June — when he could be part of Life Skills' last graduating class. And if the school goes, he doesn't know where kids like him will turn.
"A lot of kids got it a lot worse than I do," Justin says, fighting back tears in his principal's office. "Santiago is saving my life. Who knows what would have happened if there wasn't this school, if I just left West and that was it?"
If Life Skills has to shut its doors, Santiago will find a place to go. He's done it before. But he has an education. He has options. For most of his students, this is their last chance. "My biggest fear," he says, "is that they're going to end up on the streets if we are forced to close."