Life Skills Center: Last-chance high school holding final graduation ceremony

Tonight, Life Skills Center will graduate its last-ever class. Back in November, the Denver Public Schools Board of Education voted to shutter the last-chance high school, a decision that the State Board of Education upheld on appeal in March. That left about 180 kids without a school for next year. After the state board decision, "our students were dropping like flies," says principal Santiago Lopez.

The eighteen students who will receive diplomas tonight are among those who stuck it out. Combined with the eleven students who graduated in January (Life Skills always has two graduations every year), that makes 29 for the year -- much higher than the numbers Superintendent Tom Boasberg cited in March, which only count students who graduate within four years of starting high school.

That describes very few of Life Skills's students. For most, Life Skills is at least their third high school. Sometimes, it's their sixth. They're almost always behind in credits, older than most students in their grade, and frustrated with school. Some struggle with drug addiction or homelessness. Others have no parents or are parents themselves. According to Lopez, many students "say they didn't feel like they were cared for in their old schools."

After the state board voted to close the school, DPS hired two transition liaisons to work with the students who dropped out as a result. "They felt defeated," Lopez says of the students who left the school. "And so did we." But Lopez says the liaisons have been helpful. Life Skills students are slated to attend a variety of alternative schools next year, including the Academy of Urban Learning, the online GOAL Academy and DPS's three new "multiple pathways schools," including Summit Academy, which are for students who are at least one year older than their peers and who are short on credits.

However, Lopez says, "it'll be interesting to see how many make it back to school in the fall.... If the summer break is too long, they fall back into their old habits." He has a list of Life Skills students and he plans to track them as best he can.

But this afternoon, he's focused on preparing for tonight's graduation at 5 p.m. at the King Performing Arts Center on the Auraria Campus. DPS board member Andrea Merida plans to speak, and Lopez will give his usual remarks. Those listening will include several graduates who plan to attend the Community College of Denver next year, one who expects to start an electrician apprenticeship and another who's worked his way up as a Taco Bell employee and has been invited into the restaurant's management program.

"That's the reward I have," Lopez says.

More from our Education archive: "North High: Some parents petition against co-location of charter school."