Life Skills Center, last-chance school, to close due to state board vote

Life Skills Center lost its appeal yesterday before the State Board of Education, which sided with Denver Public Schools' decision to close the school. The last-chance high, which Westword profiled in 2007, will shut its doors after eight years of educating all who showed up on its doorstep, no matter how troubled, how discouraged or how far behind.

It was a tough decision. After two hours of testimony that sounded a lot like a contentious jury trial, the seven-member board voted 4-to-3 to uphold DPS's decision. "How much longer are we going to give a school like this?" asked board member Elaine Gantz Berman. She called the school's results, which show that an average of 16 percent of students graduate, "pretty horrifying."

Students, teachers and parents in the audience, all of whom clutched framed photos of smiling Life Skills graduates in blue and gold gowns, looked deflated. At least one cried in the hallway. Principal Santiago Lopez, who took the school's top job in 2006 and turned around a previously complacent school culture, was disappointed. Faced with a close call, he said, the state board "should have sided with the students who will now be marked as dropouts." Lopez estimates that fewer than 20 percent of Life Skills's current students will find a new school when Life Skills closes. Sick of not succeeding at one school or another, the students -- some of whom are as old as 21 -- will probably drop out for good.

Life Skills is charter school. It has a contract with DPS that allows it to operate, and when that contract runs out, DPS can decide either to renew it or terminate it. If they decide to terminate, the school can appeal to the state board, which Life Skills did in 2008. That time, it won. Not so this time. An appeal hearing works like this: Each side gets twenty minutes to argue its case. Like at the Supreme Court, state board members can interrupt at any time to ask questions. Then each side gets time for a rebuttal argument.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg faced off yesterday against Lopez and Eric Hall, an attorney for Life Skills. Hall went first, calling Life Skills "the final safety net" for kids who are homeless, kids who are addicted to drugs, kids who have no parents and kids who are parents themselves. He touted the school's open-door policy, pointing out that other alternative schools (DPS lists fifteen on its website) have enrollment requirements, such as that students must read at a seventh-grade level or have a certain number of credits. Many of Life Skills's students wouldn't meet those criteria, he said.

"These students have lost trust in the system," Hall said.

But Life Skills doesn't just deliver academics. It also provides what Lopez calls "wraparound services." The school has a full-time social worker and two attendance liaisons. If kids aren't in school, the liaisons call to ask why. The school partners with several community organizations, including Food Bank of the Rockies, which provides food. Goodwill Industries helps the students prepare for job interviews, and six students are currently doing paid internships with the Better Business Bureau. A grant pays for bus passes for every Life Skills student to make sure they have a way to get to school. And a part-time nurse helps them attend to health needs that may have been long ignored. One student didn't have the hearing aids she needed, Lopez said; the school helped her navigate a maze of paperwork to solve that. "She got her hearing aids today," Lopez said.

While all that is good, Boasberg said, it doesn't answer the most important question: Are Life Skills's 200 students learning? The answer, he said, is a resounding no. In fact, he said, the school has "gone from terrible to worse."

He trotted out some damning statistics: Out of the state's 72 alternative schools, Life Skills ranks 69th. "They are missing all of their targets," he said, referring to goals laid out in the school's contract with the district. One goal was that 80 percent of students would earn five credits or more in a year. Only 67 percent earned a single credit, he said, and the average amount of credits earned was a measly 1.3.

Life Skills insists it met or, as its contract requires, made "reasonable progress" toward the majority of the goals in its contract, including to increase attendance and connect students with services. But Boasberg said it's not enough to have students show up to school dressed nicely and ready to take a test if they can't pass it.

Board members asked if DPS had a plan for the students left stranded by Life Skills' closure. Boasberg insisted that it does. There are several other alternative schools downtown, he said, including Emily Griffith Technical College. "We have capacity at nearby high-quality schools," he assured the board.

Board member Marcia Neal was skeptical that Life Skills students would enroll elsewhere. She voted to keep Life Skills open. "I hate to doom any kid to not finish school," Neal said.

But she was in the minority. Most members agreed Life Skills has run its course. "The time for turnaround has passed," said Paul Lundeen, who voted to shutter the school.

Afterward, Paul Droege, a founding Life Skills board member, called the decision a "tough loss for the students." The kids, he said, "deserve better than what happened today."

More from our Education archive: "Denver Public Schools committee exploring possible bond, mill levy ballot initiatives."

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar