Life Skills Center of Denver Continues to Fill Important Niche for At-Risk Students

This week one of my Education Policy Center friends was privileged with the opportunity to visit a Denver charter school that fills a niche for 16- to 21-year olds who have dropped out and/or been neglected by the system. Life Skills Center of Denver is an alternative education campus that uses computer-assisted instruction in a teacher-guided laboratory setting to help high school students get remediation in lagging math and reading skills with the goal of graduation and success in life.

In 2007, after four years of operation, Life Skills was in danger of having its charter revoked and being shut down. The State Board intervened to save the school after the DPS board’s vote based on legitimate concerns with poor results that showed up on testing measures. As Denise at Colorado Charters noted back then, new principal Santiago Lopez had already taken steps to improve the school. And Alan at Ed News Colorado came around to seeing Life Skills as a “special case” that deserved to stay open:

If DPS had a viable alternative for these kids, one that was being drained by the existence of Life Skills, I’d favor shutting down the school. But these are kids DPS has given up on, and vice-versa. What possible harm is there in giving them another chance, even if it’s less than ideal?

This week’s visit to Life Skills demonstrated that the Denver charter remains on course with Lopez at the helm. State and district performance measures raise concerns. Yet students come in way behind, and most show average or better academic growth results. The attendance rate is only 53 percent, which represents a significant improvement from before the current principal’s tenure.

It goes to show a large part of the battle is getting these at-risk students — about three-fourths of whom come from all over the city, and the rest from surrounding districts — to show up and take responsibility for their success. And while some still slip through the cracks, the hard work and incentives used by Lopez and his staff are having an impact. Those who attend consistently are making up serious ground on their academic deficits, and many are graduating and taking a significantly improved change of course in life.

In particular, the success stories presented by recent and soon-to-be Life Skills graduates at the Wednesday event show that the school is making an unmistakeably profound impact on some of their students’ lives. All the best in the future to Chantelle and Regis and others who shared their compelling testimonials. What about the students who don’t cut it, in spite of all efforts, you say? Each case is sad, yet as Alan pointed out a few years ago, the system already had set them aside.

As a charter school, Life Skills has the freedom to restructure and redesign the learning experience in a way that gives otherwise discarded teens and young adults a better chance to succeed. That in itself is no magic formula. But a supportive and visionary board, strong school leadership, a capable and committed staff, and the tools to deliver an engaging curriculum thankfully means more success stories. As long as students continue to choose this alternative option and the school stays on its current trajectory, Life Skills will continue proving its worthy role in the metro Denver community.