When high-school students confront daily realities of poverty, family struggles, drug and alcohol dependence, or gang violence, many of them slide into a spiral of absenteeism and underperformance in traditional high schools, dropping out or tuning out well before graduation.
Some dropouts later attend "continuation schools," half-day programs in which students spend most of their time filling out academic worksheets on their own. Needless to say, such programs have a high dropout rate, and do little to address the issues of life skills and character building that would help students stay out of trouble for the rest of their lives.
Recognizing the scope of this neglected population, and the costs to society of letting them slip through the cracks, the San Francisco Mayor's office introduced the Juvenile Justice Local Action Plan. This Plan includes the Life Learning Academy (LLA), a charter school that opened in 1998, which targets students whose drug and disciplinary problems have kept them from success in traditional public schools.
At the LLA, since classes integrate academic material with more practical skills, students are not forced to choose between vocational training and gaining abstract knowledge. They operate the on-campus café, learning valuable life skills involving cooking and management, and apply their knowledge of geometry and arithmetic to the practical tasks of operating a bicycle repair shop.
The LLA is based on the model of the Delancey Street Foundation (DSF), the nation's leading self-help program for former substance abusers and criminals. Applied to the LLA, the DSF's approach helps youths with disciplinary and criminal problems learn how to develop their strengths and "become the solutions" to the problems they see around them.
As students progress, they become mentors to others and serve on the Student Mediation Council, a democratic group which enforces the rules of the school, especially those relating to drugs and discipline. Many of the students have histories of violence and gang activity, but as of 2004 there has not been a fight at the school and criminal problems outside school dropped by a factor of three for LLA students compared to their peers.
With a focus on skills such as cooperation and mediation, the LLA has brought its students a combined approach to learning that excited school officials from the very beginning; the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), normally hesitant to endorse charter schools, gave the LLA's charter a unanimous approval, the only such decision in San Francisco's history.
The results achieved by the program are impressive. Only 10% of LLA students had attendance problems, compared with 75% of comparable youth in San Francisco, and their mean grade point average went from a 1.1 ("D" average) prior to enrollment to a 2.6 ("C+" average) after several semesters of the program. All eligible seniors have passed the required proficiency tests to graduate from SFUSD; before entering the program, more than half of the group had failed these tests previously.
While the cost per student of the LLA is significantly higher than in the rest of the school district, the program is likely to pay for itself in terms of the savings on incarceration and social support costs in addition to the benefits of bringing these young men and women into the mainstream of American society.