Eyewitness Account: An Effective ‘Second Chance’ School

Published April 1, 2005

White Hat Management, an education management organization founded by David Brennan and headquartered in Akron, Ohio, serves nearly 15,000 students in various schools it operates across the country.

Among the most remarkable of the White Hat schools are the 23 Life Skills Centers: 18 in Ohio, two in both Colorado and Michigan, and one in Arizona. The Life Skills Centers offer an alternative education environment giving a “second chance” to high school-age students who dropped out of conventional schools but have since discovered the importance of a high school diploma.

Students enrolled in Life Skills Centers have a full and lively schedule. They attend class four hours a day, five days a week. Instruction is highly disciplined, without all the frills, and heavy on computer use with a teacher facilitator. Students have time for employment or family responsibilities. They also participate in some community affairs–e.g., a health fair or Black History Month events. When they graduate, they receive a state-recognized high school diploma, not a GED.

Each Life Skills Center has an aggressive placement department that assists students in seeking and securing employment. Students are given skills in resume writing and taught how to present themselves in an interview. At the same time, students are cautioned that “there’s no free lunch!”–that they are not “owed” employment by anybody and have to work hard to earn and keep their jobs. It’s an effective “tough love” program.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Lake Erie Life Skills Center on Cleveland’s west side. The student body is split evenly among white, Hispanic, and black students. Half of the staff is bilingual in Spanish. The center draws from several west suburbs, because no one else offers such a program.

The Lake Erie center’s administrator is Joe Czerwien, a former teacher and director of educational services for the Youngstown court system. In the court system position, he interacted with that area’s Life Skills Centers and found them effective in dealing with truants. When a change of political administrations took place, Czerwien was out of a job and sought out Life Skills.

Joe’s administrative assistant, Jose Leon, offers a good deal of enthusiasm as a past military man and teacher who came from Puerto Rico to teach. An inspirational force for the students, Leon hopes to return to Puerto Rico one day and establish a Life Skills program there.

The Lake Erie Life Skills Center enrolls 678 students in three tracks, with new students arriving daily. Master teacher Brenda Socha is responsible for curriculum development and the 32 teaching staff members.

The center holds graduation ceremonies in June and December. Czerwien sees to it that it is a memorable event for students and guests alike.

In December 2004, I was invited to attend the graduation ceremony for 43 students. It was a moving experience, a classic pomp-and-circumstance ceremony. A staff member with a beautiful soprano voice sang. Distinguished speakers delivered inspiring messages for the students. Three students spoke at the ceremony as well, paying tribute to the encouragement they had received from the center’s staff. City Councilman Jay Westbrook was in the audience and acknowledged from the podium. Czerwien makes a point to be actively engaged in the community.

Of the 43 graduates in the December ceremony:

  • 29 are going on to college;
  • four are going into the military;
  • six are going to trade schools;
  • one has secured a trade apprenticeship; and
  • three are working in careers.

Of the 84 June 2004 graduates, 57 went to college, many with scholarship assistance. The balance went into the military, trade schools, or jobs.

Excellent results for an inner-city school! Life Skills succeeds in sparing many from a life of despair, one person at a time.

Charles V. Byrne ([email protected]) lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He is a former member of the Ohio State Board of Education.