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Opinion: Please keep Life Skills open

Editor’s note: This article was submitted by Peter Droege, president of the Life Skills Charter High School board.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, approximately 13,000 students drop out of school each year in our state.

Life Skills Charter High School has proven remarkably effective in reclaiming these high-risk students and helping them graduate from high school. We are deeply concerned that the Office of School Reform and Innovation (OSRI) at Denver Public Schools recommended non-renewal of our school. The DPS board vote this Thursday will not only impact the lives of the hundreds of students we serve, it will send a powerful message about our community’s commitment to students who have dropped out of school.

There has been a great deal of misinformation around the performance of Life Skills Charter High School. A Nov. 4 article in the Denver Post gave the impression that we had only one student graduate last year, with 16 others listed as “completers.” In fact, 24 students received diplomas through our program last year. This confusion has been present at every level of the renewal process. I hope the following information will provide a more accurate description of this amazing program serving students who have dropped out of school.

Given the student population at Life Skills, it is a remarkable accomplishment that we exceed, meet, or make reasonable progress on 10 of the 12 goals in our contract. The primary area where we do not meet our goals is academic performance. This is not surprising given that our students come to us reading, on average, at the fifth-grade level. In addition, many of our students face tremendous social challenges: homelessness, addiction, being young moms and dads, mental illness, being on probation, etc.

We are honored to partner with DPS in providing an academically rigorous program with supportive services that truly serves the needs of our students. We provide each student with an individual assessment, a personal academic achievement plan and the individual support needed to succeed and graduate.

Classes are offered year-round and students attend one five-hour session per day, five days a week, with multiple daily class sessions offering maximum flexibility.

All of our caring and dedicated teachers are No Child Left Behind highly qualified and licensed in the subject area in which they teach. We have a full-time family advocate, or social worker, to assist our students, who often face tremendous challenges in life. We also have two full time vocational specialists to help our students discover their passion and purpose in life. Students must pass each class with a “B” in order to move on to the next level.

Our Response to Intervention (RTI) team does an amazing job connecting struggling students with academic programs designed to meet their needs. More often than not, this results in one-on-one instruction in the math or reading labs.

This year we established a partnership with the Better Business Bureau that offers paid internships to students to equip them to succeed in the workplace. We also launched a partnership with the Food Bank of the Rockies, since many of our students are at risk of hunger. We are actively engaged with countless other schools, community organizations and probation officers who see us as a key partner in helping their young people get a fresh start in life.

Every student is welcome at Life Skills, no minimum academic requirements, no interview process. We would never think of excluding students out of a concern that their academic performance will drag down our test scores.

Do we have improvements to make? Yes. Has our performance over the past several years demonstrated that we are willing to continue to improve our school? Yes. We believe this warrants us getting our contract renewed for at least two years.

About half of our students have already tried — and failed — in two or three other DPS schools. The other half have been to four, five, six or even seven other schools before coming to Life Skills. It’s these students that have repeatedly fallen through the cracks that we care about at our school.

Where else will they get an 11:1 student to teacher ratio? Where else will they get the wraparound services that they need in order to even be able to address academic issues?

The OSRI office says that there are 1,000 seats waiting for our students, but many of our students and parents have said that they do not view these schools as viable options, given that many of the students have already dropped out of the same schools.

There are many thousands of unserved students who have dropped out of school and are looking for a second chance at life. Now is not the time to eliminate this option. Please consider contacting the DPS board and asking them to vote in support of allowing Life Skills Charter High School to continue providing this model that has proven to be so effective in helping high-risk students.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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