January 22nd to 28th will mark National School Choice Week, which promotes efforts to empower parents to choose the best education option for their children. There is probably no better example of why children need choices in education than Life Learning Academy (LLA) public charter school.
Opponents of charter schools, which are independent public schools that have greater flexibility and greater accountability than regular public schools, often claim that charters cherry pick students and exclude those who have special needs or are hard to educate. LLA totally disproves this accusation.
I recently visited LLA, which is located in a former Naval youth center on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The school has room for up to 60 high school-age students who, according to the San Francisco Unified School District, “have not been successful in other school settings for a variety of reasons.” Talk about an understatement.
Many of LLA’s students are homeless youths who are often from broken families torn by financial and personal upheaval. Most are trying escape abusive, violent, crime-ridden and/or drug-infested environments.
In a radio interview, LLA principal Teri Delane said, “We get kids that no one else wants and kids who are lost in the big school system.”
Fifteen-year-old LLA student Austin says, “I’ve lived in a hotel, I’ve lived in a car before, I’ve been homeless.” Explaining to San Francisco’s KTVU-TV, he laments, “It’s very unpleasant. It just makes me feel really bad.”
Quora, a recent LLA alum, observed, “Who knows what’s going on behind people’s closed doors.” She became homeless, and says, “There are a lot of kids who you would think have a home but don’t.”
“When you’re homeless, you’re always worrying about where you’re going to sleep and what you’re going to eat,” says LLA student Robert, who bounced around from place to place, with the shadow of drugs and gang activity always around him.
Yet, for Robert and the other students at LLA, the school provides a shelter from the dysfunction and dangers of the outside world.
The school requires a strict commitment to nonviolence, and promotes peer support, conflict resolution, and intervention to keep the school safe.
“Everyone cares about you here,” says Robert, “and I feel safe here.” “Kids who have done stuff that you can’t imagine come through these doors,” says Quora, “and they get along at lunch tables and then walk out with the same mindframe.”
The school’s team of educators, counselors, peers and alumni surround each student with support, identify their strengths, and work to ensure that no one falls through the cracks. LLA is currently raising funds to build an on-campus boarding facility.
The school’s courses combine traditional core academic lessons with vocational and life-skill education. Experiential learning is emphasized. Unique classes such as culinary arts, engineering, organic gardening, digital media storytelling, and bike mechanics are offered.
LLA helps students with job training and employment opportunities, provides one-on-one college and career counseling, and rewards graduates with access to a scholarship fund.
The school’s program is working. More than nine out of 10 LLA students graduate, which is a significantly higher rate than the state average. Also, 85 percent eventually go on to earn a college degree.
“The school staff sets high expectations for their students,” writes LLA alum Kisai. “I know I have overcome the obstacles of my youth because of LLA.”
Life Learning Academy demonstrates that no child is beyond saving. “When you have 90 percent of the kids who are killed in San Francisco,” notes Teri Delane, “killed because they drop out of school, it is my job to make sure they stay in school.” The bottom line: giving children the choice to attend a better school may literally mean the difference between life and death.