'F' for Life Skills 

Controversial D-11 charter school flunks state evaluation

click to enlarge David Brennan, founder of White Hat Management. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • David Brennan, founder of White Hat Management.

A charter school for dropouts, approved by the Colorado Springs School District 11 board two years ago against the recommendations of district staff and advisers, has earned the equivalent of an "F" on its first state report card.

The grade comes as the D-11 board prepares to consider a second charter application from the for-profit company that runs the school, White Hat Management.

Life Skills Center of Colorado Springs, which opened last year, was rated "unsatisfactory" on an accountability report from the state Department of Education last week. It was the only school in the Pikes Peak region to earn the dubious distinction.

Moreover, students at the school saw a "significant decline" in their academic growth, according to the report.

The school offers an alternative path to a high school diploma for students who have dropped out of traditional public schools. The school's approximately 200 students spend much of their classroom time in front of computers and are required to work part-time jobs, mostly at fast-food restaurants.

Life Skills principal Charles Holt did not respond to requests for comment on his school's rating. Others suggest it's too soon to judge the school.

"How much judgment do you want to make after one year's time?" asks John Gudvangen, newly elected president of the D-11 board. The state report is only one indicator of the school's performance, he notes.

"There are other indicators to look at, and I don't know enough about the other indicators for that school," he says.

However, Life Skills Centers in Ohio, White Hat's home state, have a history of abysmal performance on state evaluations. According to news accounts, the schools also have failed to test most of their students, drawing rebukes even from Ohio's Republican, pro-charter governor, Bob Taft.

Full speed ahead

Though managed by White Hat, Life Skills in Colorado Springs is overseen by a board made up of prominent, mostly Latino community leaders, who first proposed the school as a way to help dropouts.

The original board included Colorado Springs Police Chief Luis Velez, Fire Chief Manuel Navarro, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president Gene Sanchez, Pikes Peak Library District director Jos Aponte, Pikes Peak Community College president Joseph Garcia, Hispania News publisher Bob Armendariz, and Brenda Quiones, an economic development officer for the city.

The board's sole non-Latino member was real estate developer Steve Schuck, who for years has been involved in statewide attempts to push increased "school choice" via vouchers and charter schools.

Life Skills got the green light shortly after Schuck orchestrated a takeover of the D-11 board in 2003 by funneling unprecedented amounts of cash into the campaigns of four reform-minded candidates.

Schuck also happened to be friends with David Brennan, the millionaire founder of White Hat.

A D-11 committee in charge of reviewing charter applications had recommended rejecting Life Skills. The district already had programs for dropouts and would be better off boosting those programs, committee members argued.

The D-11 board approved Life Skills anyway. (For a detailed account of Schuck's board takeover and the Life Skills controversy, see "Command Performance," a two-part series that appeared on Feb. 19 and Feb. 26, 2003, at csindy.com.)

Academic emergencies

This year, every single Life Skills school that was rated by the state of Ohio was listed as an "academic emergency" -- the worst possible rating -- on the Ohio Department of Education's Web site.

Of all 16 Life Skills schools in the state, none made "adequate yearly progress" as measured by the department.

Moreover, a recent state analysis revealed that the schools' participation in mandated state graduation tests ranged from just 3 percent to 50 percent of students. Public schools in Ohio's biggest cities had participation rates close to 100 percent, the Associated Press reported.

"The kids need to take the tests that all the other students are taking," Gov. Taft said of the findings. "There should be no excuses for that."

In Colorado Springs, Life Skills will be required to submit an improvement plan to the Colorado Department of Education. If the school were to receive an "unsatisfactory" rating four years in a row, it could lose its charter, meaning D-11 would manage the school directly or hand the charter to a different organizer.

Meanwhile, the school board is about to consider another application from White Hat, which now wants to open a distance-learning school. Although the school officially would be chartered in D-11, it would aim to enroll as many as 2,500 students from all across Colorado.

The students would learn from home, using computers, and would contact teachers for support via chat rooms and toll-free phone numbers.

Once again, D-11's charter review committee has voted to recommend denial. Its chairwoman, Trish Nixon, said committee members had "quite a few" concerns about the proposal.

For one thing, the school targets "at-risk" students. If hundreds or thousands of new at-risk students from outside district boundaries suddenly are to be counted as D-11 students, that could hurt the district's overall academic rating, Nixon notes.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the charter school application, along with two others, on Dec. 21.

-- Terje Langeland


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