By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Karen Gipson will graduate from the Life Skills Center of Summit County later this month at a ceremony where she'll be the featured speaker.
''I'm happy that I'm graduating it took me awhile,'' said the 22-year-old Barberton High School dropout.
She's quick to credit the turnaround to Life Skills a publicly funded, privately operated charter school. ''Honestly, I think Life Skills is better than a regular school.''
The problem is that she'll walk the stage with so few others.
Last year, Life Skills Center of Summit County posted a graduation rate of 9 percent.
In contrast, Barberton High had a graduation rate of nearly 89 percent.
Akron's East High School had a 74 percent graduation rate the lowest of any traditional high school in the city, where most of the Life Skills students live.
State officials say such comparisons are unfair, because most Life Skills students have dropped out of a traditional school. But Akron Public Schools also has a dropout program that serves the same kind of students as Life Skills and produced more graduates last year than twice the three Akron Life Skills Centers combined.
It doesn't matter how few graduates charter schools produce. That's because they are ''dropout prevention'' programs, which are exempt from a 2006 law that requires the state to close poorly performing charter schools.
The exemption shields all 18 Life Skills Centers in Ohio operated by Akron businessman David L. Brennan's White Hat Management, one of the country's largest for-profit charter school companies.
The protection was supposed to be temporary until the state board of education devised an alternative way to hold charter dropout schools accountable.
The board reported its recommendations to lawmakers in 2008, which included judging dropout schools by how many diplomas they hand out, but the recommendations have gone nowhere.
Meanwhile, the Life Skills Centers continue to collect a flood of taxpayers' dollars about $28 million projected this school year but produce only a trickle of graduates in return.
Some students who have left the centers without a diploma say the schools rely too much on computers to do all the teaching.
The promotional material for Life Skills says the schools offer ''individualized, computer assisted, self-paced course work with teacher supported instruction designed to meet your needs.''
Students come to school for four hours a day and usually sit in front of a computer in a mini-cubicle.
They go on the Internet to take a series of courses from Apex Learning, a Seattle-based corporation that also offers Advanced Placement courses. The company describes itself as ''the leading provider of digital curriculum for secondary education to the nation's school districts.''
After reading some text about a subject, the students take a quiz. If they answer enough questions, they move on and eventually get credit for completing the course.
Teachers don't give classroom lessons, but they're available if a student needs help. At least, they're supposed to be.
Gipson and other students at Life Skills centers said they got all the help they needed.
''They're always there in the room, ready to help,'' said Stephen Pavlic, 19, one of Gipson's classmates.
Another classmate, Ashley Lind, 20, said she prefers Life Skills because she doesn't like to be rushed.
''I found that a regular high school was too pressured for me,'' she said. ''I couldn't handle all the pressure to have all my assignments done at a certain point. Here, you can work at your own pace.''
Reliance on computers
But others say they had a different experience.
Janire Garcia said she left the Life Skills of North Akron when she couldn't get help with geometry.
''I was just there at the computer doing my own geometry. If I needed help, I had to go to a totally different room and ask for help,'' Garcia said. She said on one occasion the teacher told her to figure it out for herself.
Angelica Bell thought she would get individual attention and smaller class sizes at Life Skills of Summit County. She said she found out different.
''You've just got that computer,'' said Bell. ''They said all the information was on the computer.''
Javonte Williams also quit Life Skills of Summit County, saying it felt like prison.
''You just had to stay at a cubicle with no connection with no people,'' Williams said. ''It felt like I was literally on lockdown.''
The three students, all 19, said they preferred the approach of the Akron Alternative Academy, the dropout program at Alkron Public Schools. The academy has some computer instruction, but adds paper-and-pencil textbook work and small classes taught by teachers.
Garcia dropped out of school in Washington after the 10th grade to care for her daughter, who has disabilities.
She ended up in Akron because of connections to her daughter's father.
In September, she enrolled in Life Skills of North Akron on Brittain Road.
''I had a friend who told me about it,'' Garcia said. ''He had another friend that went there and they were like, 'Yeah, you get stuff done faster there,' but I don't think it's true. It took me a long time to even get a credit and it was a credit I could have got here [at the Akron Alternative Academy] within a couple of weeks.''
She does give Life Skills credit for helping her pass the five-part Ohio Graduation Test.
''I can't complain about the way they teach because they do really well, just teaching for the OGTs,'' she said.
Trouble getting help
But she also needed academic credits to get her diploma, and that's where she says Life Skills let her down.
One day, she was struggling to remember the difference between a scalene and isosceles triangle.
''The teacher actually got to the point, she was like 'You just figure it out.' I remember, I Googled it and she considered me cheating.''
Garcia said the teachers' attention was spread too thin.
''Some students would be listening to music on their iPods and texting and stuff and some teachers would be like, 'You can't have your phone out' when seconds ago they were talking on the phone or texting or something,'' Garcia said.
When she did get their attention, some weren't helpful.
''There was a teacher who got to the point where she told me, 'I really don't care whether you finish or not. I get my paycheck anyway.' That's what she told me,'' Garcia said. ''That really bothered me.''
She left Life Skills in December.
''I was working on geometry and I worked on geometry with them for like three months and I still didn't get done,'' Garcia said. ''Here in three months I got half of my credit.''
She's about four credits shy of graduation and expects to get her diploma this fall. She said teachers such as Tammy Swanson, who teaches language arts, are helping her knock down the last remaining courses.
''The teachers here, they actually pay attention to what you're doing and they'll actually help you if you need the help,'' Garcia said. ''Here, Ms. Swanson has never ignored me, doing something else. I've never seen her on her phone and over there.''
Like Garcia, students Bell and Williams complained about not getting enough help from teachers and prefer the Akron Alternative Academy, where they now attend.
Bell struggled at Barberton High School and dropped out after the 10th grade.
''After a while I didn't like the classrooms, because I was sitting in there and always getting into trouble,'' Bell said. ''Then I said, well, Life Skills is less people in the classroom and I thought I was going to be taught, but we just sat in front of computers all day.''
While students differ on whether Life Skills teachers are helpful enough, Ohio Department of Education statistics indicate Brennan's teachers are spread much thinner.
The state's 2009-10 report card counted seven full-time teachers at Life Skills Center of Summit County. That works out to be one teacher for every 33 students about triple the ratio at traditional public high schools.
The Akron Alternative Academy, which serves the same ''high risk'' group of dropouts and chronic truants as the Life Skills centers, had 14 full-time teachers last year one for every 21 students enrolled, according to the state's 2009-10 report card.
Steve Garton, the English teacher at Life Skills of Summit County, said the numbers are misleading. He said teachers always are moving around the computer lab and ready to answer questions.
Sometimes Garton brings students to his desk for a mini-lesson when students are struggling. Just this week, he said he helped a student understand the ancient hero Beowulf by comparing him with a contemporary hero the student already knew.
''So we sat down and we did a side-by-side: this is how Spider-Man is, this is how Beowulf is, and he got it from that,'' Garton said.
When students really aren't getting it, they can request a free tutor. That's what Gipson did last year after repeatedly failing the science section of the Ohio Graduation Test.
Garton said he doesn't spend class time talking on the cell phone.
''I can't speak for other schools, but I can tell you it doesn't happen in here,'' Garton said. ''We're very big on how we need to set the example for how we want them to behave.''
It's been about two years since Javonte Williams was a student at Garton's Life Skills Center. But he said he does remember teachers chatting on cell phones.
''They know it's not a real school. They're just basically helping people with children and people who don't like school to just go somewhere so they can stay off the streets,'' Williams said. ''That's what I think it is because I used to be one of the people who wanted to get off the street.''
Williams dropped out of Firestone High School when he realized he was behind on credits.
''Firestone is a great academic school. You get the help you need, you get the work done, if you want to,'' he said. ''You hang with the wrong crowd at Firestone and just worry about getting girls and stuff, you're not graduating.''
Williams thought he could get credits faster at Life Skills and catch up to his classmates in the Class of 2010.
''I think that decision right there actually messed me up,'' he said. ''When I went to Life Skills, it wasn't like that. You had to wait longer for credits. They'd help you, but they wouldn't help you enough.''
Williams thinks he'll succeed at Akron Alternative Academy.
''I think this is a great school because you get the help you need without having to ask for it,'' he said.
The graduation numbers indicate the Alternative Academy is doing something right.
Last year, the school, which had about 300 students, graduated 139.
That was more than double the 67 students who got diplomas from the three Akron area Life Skills centers, which had a combined enrollment of about 670 last year.
Diploma attainment was one of the ways the state board recommended three years ago to hold accountable the charter schools with dropout programs.
''The board has determined that a positive indicator of good performance in a dropout recovery program is the school's ability to guide students to program completion,'' according to the state board's 2008 recommendations.
The Republican-controlled legislature has taken no action.
Brennan, the biggest contributor to the Ohio Republican Party and its candidates over the last 20 years, has a track record for getting his way.
Brennan says he hasn't seen an acceptable method to judge his schools yet.
John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or email@example.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/. Beacon Journal computer-assisted reporting manager David Knox contributed to this report.