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Covenant House Life Skills Centers

Charter schools, by definition, come in all shapes and sizes, based on their founders and the varieties of students they want to serve. But one group of charter schools in Detroit is particularly unusual -- it is run by Covenant House.

Covenant House Life Skills Centers work with students who have dropped out of or been expelled from the Detroit Public Schools. On average, students at the three schools are two to four years behind in school, but more than 400 young people have gotten their high school diplomas there in the past five years.

While the charter school movement is sometimes criticized for removing the most motivated students from the public school system, this is not the case with the CHLSCs, which exist to work with "only the kids nobody else wanted to deal with," according to Stan Childress, director of educational services for Covenant House Michigan.

The schools exist to work with "only the kids nobody else wanted to deal with."

"This is sort of like a last chance for some of them," said Fannie Owens, a teacher at the Central Life Skills Center, located in the main Covenant House shelter – there are two other centers on the east and southwest sides of Detroit. "We take them at age 16. In a regular high school that's eleventh grade, but some of our kids might just have credit for ninth grade."

Veronica Torres, 17, finished eighth grade with good grades before her life went into a spiral. She ran away from home and could not go to school because the police were looking for her. Eventually, she turned herself in and came back home. Her first daughter was born almost two years ago. When her second daughter was born six months ago, she felt discouraged as she saw her dream of going to college and becoming a social worker start to fade.

"At that point I didn't think I was going to be able to go back to school or have any time for myself," explained Veronica.

Now, Veronica is on track to graduate on time from high school. She attends the Covenant House Life Skills Center Southwest, and likes how she can work at her own pace, for four hours or eight hours a day, depending on her schedule. She's earning straight A's and taking a weekly parenting class."They help you out and give you one-on-one help," said Veronica of the school's staff. "It's real good."

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The schools opened five years ago, after Covenant House Michigan saw that 90 percent of its residents were high school dropouts, many of whom were still interested in getting a diploma. "In the midst of the greatest downturn in Michigan's economy since the Great Depression, we recognized it was going to take more from us to get our kids across the bridge from despair to opportunity, from homelessness to hope," said Kevin M. Ryan, president and CEO of Covenant House International. "We built a ladder in the form of our charter schools exclusively for young people who have been expelled from or dropped out of the Detroit Public Schools. This is a huge game-changer in the lives of kids in Detroit, and is making possible for them futures of hope and promise that not very long ago seemed almost impossible to imagine."

The schools reach the whole city -- only about five percent of the students at the three Life Skills Centers are residents of the Covenant House shelter. About 30 percent of the students have been involved in the criminal justice system, and a quarter are parents themselves. Each school provides a team to work with students on their social and emotional needs, with counseling, a family liaison, and a psychologist.

"This is a huge game-changer in the lives of kids in Detroit, and is making possible for them futures of hope and promise that not very long ago seemed almost impossible to imagine."

Ms. Owens has seen a young man who had been shot in the head persevere with his studies; he graduated in January. And she has given pep talks to young people who were about to throw in the towel, then buckled down and graduated.

"Some of them come here angry," she said. "They've been betrayed, they're non-trusting, and some of them are immature. But I've seen some of them blossom into responsible adults, and become kind-hearted, in just a million ways."

Mr. Childress said the schools try to move past whatever motivated the young people to drop out in the first place – bullying, feeling in danger, difficult relationships with teachers or parents, not having the right clothes to wear.

"Give us another way to show our value to society, because we have 406 kids who graduated, who might otherwise be on the welfare rolls or in prisons."

"They find that we really walk the talk on absolute respect and unconditional love," he said. "They feel that when they come trough the door. We ask the staff we're hiring, 'Do you love kids? Can you work with a kid who's far, far behind in academic performance, and respect that child?' That's the critical criteria we're looking for in staffing these buildings."

The programs are not without their problems, of course. The schools have yet to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress required under No Child Left Behind, with students most recently scoring below the 30th percentile in math. While the schools do not want to be exempted from the federal and state criteria for success, Mr. Childress wishes his schools could be ranked based on how much progress individual students make in short periods of time. "Give us another way to show our value to society, because we have 406 kids who graduated, who might otherwise be on the welfare rolls or in prisons." said Mr. Childress.

While many Detroit charter schools recently lost their charters, the school district recently reauthorized the Covenant House schools for another five years, with permission to work with a larger population—up to 500 students per school, from 350 now. Currently, almost 60 percent of the schools' graduates go on to some kind of formal, post-secondary training, either college, community college, trade schools or certificate-granting programs.