Life Skills Offers Last-Chance High
Justin Martinez missed school — again — on November 2. But this time, the nineteen-year-old's absence was excused. He had to go to Pueblo to see his father. In the morgue.
Justin's parents had split when he was just a kid. Justin and his brothers stayed with their mother in Denver; his father wound up in Pueblo. Although Justin had spent summers with his dad when he was younger, he hadn't seen him much lately. But none of his uncles would go identify their brother's body, so the job fell to him. Since he was too upset to drive, his godmother drove him down; Justin's little brother tagged along for support.
At the morgue, the coroner rolled out a body bag with a tag that read "John Doe." But the minute the coroner unzipped the bag, Justin saw his father's face.
Later, he went to the spot where his father's body had been found the day after Halloween, near some bushes five or six feet from a bus stop. The police were saying the death was suspicious, but probably not a murder.
Justin couldn't get his father's face out of his mind. He suspected foul play: He knew his father fought a lot and drank even more, had many women and even more enemies. Justin locked himself in his bedroom for hours, lying there with his eyes closed, opening them only to cry. Over the next three weeks, he only made it to school once or twice. He'd been hoping to finally graduate in December, but now that looked out of reach.
The day before Thanksgiving break, Santiago Lopez, the principal at Life Skills Center of Denver, looked up and saw Justin walking into the alternative high school, his head hung low. A photo of his father was pinned to his jacket. Justin had a fresh haircut and new sneakers, but his eyes were puffy, and there was still swelling on his forehead where someone had hit him with a bottle a month before.
Santiago turned on his computer to take a look at Justin's earned-credits report. At Life Skills, one of the requirements for getting a diploma is that a student have an attendance rate higher than 80 percent for the three months leading up to graduation. That's a requirement that Santiago can waive in extreme circumstances — and Justin's would seem to qualify. Still, Justin needed nine more classes to graduate, and the most he'd ever finished in a month was four.
This last semester had been rough even before Justin's father died. His mother had broken up with her boyfriend, and Justin had been working more hours at his janitor gig at Eagleton Elementary School to help pay the bills. His older brothers, twins Joshua and James, weren't around. One had disappeared, then resurfaced in a rehab facility for drug addicts; the other, who'd been rolling with a gang, had just been sentenced to four years in prison.
Compared to the rest of life's bullshit, missing December's graduation didn't seem like such a big deal to Justin, especially because he wouldn't be kicked out of Life Skills for skipping school or being too old. Students range from previously home-schooled kids to former dropouts, single parents to night-shift workers, and they all take classes at their own pace, earning credits off a computer-based curriculum and taking as long as they need to fulfill the requirements for a diploma.
"You know we're here for you, whatever you need," Santiago told Justin.
Life Skills is there for him now, but it may not be much longer.
Life Skills is the last in a long line of schools that Justin has attended.
As a kid, he bounced around public schools all over Denver's west side. His mother kept moving the family; the only places she could afford to rent always came with pain-in-the-ass landlords, leaking roofs, plumbing or some other problem, and they were always in rough neighborhoods.
By the fall of 2002, Justin was a freshman at West High School. But he didn't spend much time inside. For one thing, Mexican students would give him dirty looks. They didn't know that he couldn't speak Spanish — like his mother, Justin was born here — they just thought that he refused to, that he'd sold out la raza and thought he was better than the rest of them. Justin preferred to hang around outside, talking to girls, selling dime bags and hustling car stereos — chasing fast money instead of an education, always carrying a knife or a gun, never books or a backpack. Although he never got jumped into a gang, Justin ran with plenty of people who did, and always repped west side when people asked where he was from.
After just a few months at West, Justin dropped out. But he soon saw that hustling full-time was more work than it was worth.
"I knew that if I didn't go back to school, I would never make it in life," Justin says. "I wanted to make more money. The money that I was making, I wasn't making it the right way, anyway, so sooner or later I knew I was going to get caught. So I thought I might as well just face the facts and quit the bullshit before something bad really happened, getting locked up or something."
Justin enrolled at the Contemporary Learning Academy in northwest Denver, one of Denver Public Schools' "alternative" schools. But he made the mistake of wearing red his first day there, and some Crips from Montbello who were attending CLA assumed he was Bloods. Justin had beef with these black kids from day one at CLA, and he soon stopped going.
Then one day the cops showed up at his house and accused him of selling mari-juana to younger kids. They searched the place, found two ounces in the basement, and cited him for possession with intent to distribute, even though Justin said the dope was just for personal use. It was the first time he'd been arrested. On the way to the station, one of the officers ripped up the original ticket and wrote a new one just for possession; he didn't want to stick the juvenile with a felony charge.
It was through his probation officer that Justin learned about Life Skills Center of Denver, a charter school at 1000 Cherokee Street. The school had only been open a year and a half when Justin enrolled in January 2005. He was seventeen and still a freshman.
At Life Skills, there was no classroom instruction. Students sat in cubicles studying on computers, and used those same computers to take tests and turn in assignments. Justin quickly saw that he could do whatever the fuck he wanted at Life Skills, since no one seemed to care if the kids studied or cut class to smoke, drink, make out, go to the store, whatever. "This is school?" he remembers thinking after his first day there.
It seemed like the teachers were always coming and going, getting hired and quitting. A couple were "hoochies," and older Life Skills students claimed they'd run into these hoochie teachers at clubs. The school's security guard, who was from a private firm, didn't bother watching the screens that showed surveillance video from around the school. Justin once asked the guard if he could hold his gun. The guard wouldn't hand it over, but he did unload it and show Justin and his friends how to cock the weapon.
The school's principal didn't check up on the kids, either, and mostly kicked back in his office. One day he asked Justin and a few other students to help a friend move. While he and the other kids were earning a few bucks, they were also earning school credits, because the principal let them stay clocked in at the computers.
This was not how school life was supposed to be at Life Skills.
In the spring of 2002, a half-dozen community activists started searching for a new educational alternative for DPS dropouts, mostly minority kids from low-income homes and single-parent families who'd had no success in traditional schools. Kids like Justin. They looked around the country for model programs and found Life Skills and its parent company, White Hat Management, which David Brennan had founded in Akron, Ohio, in 1998. Four years later, White Hat had fifteen schools, seven of them Life Skills Centers.
"There were just a couple companies like it," remembers Pierre Jimenez, an activist who'd worked for then-governor Bill Owens at the time and later went on to a job with White Hat. "What we were looking for was a school that specialized in the high-risk population — dropouts, per se." The six, who'd formed a volunteer board to oversee a new school, invited Brennan to speak to them, and then they went to Ohio to see Life Skills in action.
"Initially, we were just happy to see a new building with clean equipment and people who were genuinely happy to be working with these kids," Jimenez says. "The curriculum was designed specifically for students who were significantly behind academically, to create an environment to remediate those deficits. Life Skills was able to zero in on where a kid was functioning and then begin on the remediation, figuring where he was and where he needed to be."
But the curriculum wasn't the only thing that made Life Skills attractive to the board. The company had some real capital behind it, which made it more likely that the Denver Board of Education would approve it as a charter school. Charters were introduced in Colorado over a decade ago, and today there are 140 in operation — all working with the approval of the school districts in which they are located, all collecting money that otherwise would go to those districts. "In some respects, it's kind of a low-risk venture on the district's part," says Jim Griffin, director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. "If they succeed and they do a great job, they're making a difference, and if they don't succeed, you can at least say you gave them a shot — and you gave them a shot at something that no one else is trying."
The DPS board wasn't entirely enthusiastic about the Life Skills proposal, Jimenez remembers, but still granted a three-year contract. As a charter school, Life Skills would get about $6,000 in federal education money for every student who enrolled. But even before the school opened in August 2003, White Hat pumped more than $700,000 into the new building it had rented for the school on Cherokee.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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."
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.
"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."