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End of the line for Life Skills

The long-running dispute between Denver Public Schools and Life Skills High School ended Wednesday when the State Board of Education voted 4-3 to uphold the Denver board’s 2011 decision not to renew the school’s charter.

The vote means the school will have to close at the end of this school year, because such SBE decisions are not appealable.

The appeal hearing was a clash of two different philosophies, with board members who voted against Life Skills arguing that charters need to meet high expectations while Life Skills supporters argued that it’s preferable to keep at-risk students in school rather than turn them into dropouts after a school closes.

Democratic SBE members Elaine Gantz Berman, Angelika Schroeder and Jane Goff joined Republican Paul Lundeen to support the DPS board’s November 2011 decision to deny Life Skills a renewal of its two-year charter.

Republicans Marcia Neal, Deb Scheffel and chair Bob Schaffer were on the losing side, voting to send the matter back to the DPS board for further consideration.

This was the second trip to the state board for Life Skills, which is operated by the White Hat Management, an Ohio-based, for-profit operator of charter schools that has had problems with regulators in other states.

The DPS board first voted to close the school in 2007, but the state board overruled that decision. The school, which opened in 2003, was granted a new, two-year charter in July 2010. The school applied for renewal last year, but the DPS board voted 4-3 last November to reject the renewal application, citing the school’s poor academic performance. The school serves fewer than 200 at-risk students, most of them dropouts from other schools. Life Skills is classified as an alternative education campus.

Life Skills lawyer Eric Hall argued that the school “has served them [students] well” and “is the final safety net” for students who are far behind grade level, have family problems and face other challenges, including being homeless.

Hall argued that Life Skills has made “reasonable progress” toward fulfilling the requirements of its contract with DPS.

Charter school appeals to SBE are fairly formalized affairs and, in most case, lawyers for schools and districts do most of the talking.

Wednesday, DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg took the lead, arguing strongly and passionately that Life Skills’ weak performance violated its contract with DPS and state and district accountability standards. By any standard, including reasonable progress, Life Skills is a failure, Boasberg argued. Life Skills is the worst-performing alternative program in DPS and the third-worst in the state, he said.

“I think the record is very, very clear. Life Skills is a school that has gone from terrible to worse,” Boasberg said.

SBE members Schaffer and Neal said they felt Life Skills had made reasonable progress and that they were worried closure of the school would turn vulnerable students into dropouts again. A key factor the SBE has to consider in charter school appeals is whether closure of a school would be in the best interests of students.

But Berman said, “How much longer are we going to give a school like this that’s been in existence eight years? I would argue that reasonable progress is not being made … and there are other options for these students.”

Lundeen was the decisive swing vote in the case. “For this group of students, it’s incredibly difficult to figure out what’s reasonable progress,” he said, but “the time for turnaround has passed.”

In other decisions affecting DPS, the state board approved without discussion innovation applications from three schools — McAuliffe International School, West Leadership Academy and West Generations Academy.

Oops, my bad

Presentations by Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia have become a regular item on SBE agendas in recent months.

Garcia, who’s also director of the Department of Higher Education and the Hickenlooper administration’s point man on education issues, has been trying to improve communication with SBE.

So it was embarrassing Wednesday when Garcia launched into a recap of Colorado Literacy Week, a series of events last week intended to spotlight the administration’s initiatives to improve early childhood literacy.

A key feature of the Feb. 27-March 2 initiative was the release of the administration’s literacy plan, titled “Colorado Reads: The Colorado Literacy Initiative.”

“No one sent us a copy,” said Neal.

“I don’t know how we missed you,” said Garcia, promising to get printed copies into board members’ hands. “I believe our vision largely is consistent with yours.”

The administration and the department have been out of synch on how much money, if any, should be spent on development of new state tests and on proposed spending for implementation of the educator effectiveness law.

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