There’s a lot of talk in education circles these days about changing to the common core curriculum or changing from books to computers. But at Life Learning Academy High School, or LLA, Principal Teri Delane is focused on making some more significant changes.
“We have a wonderful school that is a small school on Treasure Island that is actually changing kids lives,” she says. “When you have 90% of the kids who are killed in San Francisco, killed because they dropped out of school, it is my job to make sure they stay in school.”
Lamont Skinner and Karla Ceja found themselves at LLA after trying several other schools. Skinner had lost all hope of finishing high school.
“I’d cut classes. Teachers would see me cutting, but they didn’t care,” he says.
But the Oakland teenager, who takes two public buses to get to the Academy, found a different experience out here on the Island.
“You can’t do that around here,” he says. “They're going to get on you about that.”
Ceja, who rides a school van from San Francisco’s Bayview to get to school, agrees.
“It’s like no other school.”
Life Learning Academy is a San Francisco Unified charter public high school. Funding for this specialized program is provided in equal parts by the San Francisco Unified School District; The Department of Children, Youth, and their Families; and private foundations and individual donations. San Francisco has 18 general education high schools that range in size from 170 to 2,500 students. At LLA, the total enrollment stays around 60, and the student to teacher ratio is about six to one. The only way, says Principal Teri Delane, that her kids will get the attention they need.
“We get kids that no one else wants and kids who are lost in the big school system,” she says. “All of these kids here are what people consider at risk. It doesn't mean all of them have been in jail but about 50-60% have been arrested. Thirty percent are on probation.”
Delane can relate to her students because of the tough times she went through growing up.
“I was using heroin from age 14,” she says. “I spent a year locked up in Caliente youth prison in Nevada at 16. By the time I was 20, I overdosed for the third time.”
Delane got help from Delancey Street, the renowned San Francisco-based self-help program for drug addicts and ex-offenders. While she was there, she went back to school and earned three degrees. Then 15 years ago, with the help of Delancey Street staff, she opened this school, and brought with her the program’s strong commitment to non-violence.
“We don’t have cops here. We don’t have security here,” she says. “We have kids that have given me their word to (practice) non-violence.”
Skinner says it works.
“Yeah, she makes every student pledge to be non-violent, and it’s crazy because there are people from different locations that don’t like each other, but they still won’t fight when they’re in the school, or like even outside the school.”
Learning goes beyond the classroom
No fighting is just the beginning of the bigger goal of having everyone actually get along with each other. It’s a goal reached every day around the lunch table. At Life Learning Academy, lunch is a big deal, cooked up from fresh ingredients by a resident chef, and her student interns. The entire school population – staff and students – sits together as a family every day.
“We all have to be a community,” says Ceja. “We have to be there for each other, support each other. If one of us is feeling down, we’re not going to step on them. We’re going to help them get up make them feel better.”
Another major focus for this school, job training, keeps Sean Lyons working full time setting up internships for students during the school year and landing them paid jobs during the summer.
“Ongoing paid employment is really our goal for every one of our graduates,” he says. “We want to have every single graduating student, in their senior year, in ongoing paid work.”
Life Learning Academy boasts an extraordinary success rate. Compared to the 80% California high school graduation rate, 99% of LLA students earn their diploma and 85% go on to earn a college degree.
It may take a while to get to the island, but from there many of the students go far.