A Tale of Two Alans

Here is a true tale based on the published insights of two men, highlighting an important contrast in credibility. Both men are named Alan. Both are from the Denver area. Both are Democrats. There the similarity ends.

The story stems around Denver’s Life Skills Center charter school, a program tailored to serve the city’s most desperate “last-chance” students. The school has made a positive difference with some, but not all, of the students it serves. As this Denver Post story points out, Life Skills has struggled to meet its performance standards but is showing improvement.

The first Alan is Alan Franklin, a paid Left-wing hack who does the bidding of political attack dog Michael Huttner. Franklin jumped on the Life Skills story to make a crass and totally unfounded political smear against the honorable Bob Schaffer, a State Board of Education member who happens to be running for the U.S. Senate.

Last year, Schaffer was part of a 4-3 State Board majority that decided to put Life Skills on one-year probation to improve its performance. Then Schaffer was quoted as saying:

“The bigger question is, how does the school compare with the street?” Schaffer asked. “Because that is the option that is being weighed and compared here. It’s not whether these students are going to go somewhere else. I think the district has amply established that the likelihood of that is rather remote.”

So the State Board told the Denver Public Schools (DPS) board to give Life Skills another chance, which they did.

Giving in to ignorance, however, Franklin writes:

Obviously, in voting to force DPS to remain saddled with this failing program intended to serve Denver’s most at-risk students, Schaffer had the best interests of…somebody at heart. Though it doesn’t appear to have been Denver’s most at-risk students.

Interestingly, Franklin’s post gathers sketchy evidence from a news story that indicates Life Skills is not making progress as quickly as DPS board members would like, while admitting the same DPS board has voted to continue the probation that Schaffer and the State Board approved last year. And his conclusion is that the school should be closed down and more at-risk students should be sent back to the streets.

Why? Apparently, just because he doesn’t like charter schools, and just because he wants to tar the good name of Bob Schaffer. How absolutely pathetic.

The second Alan is Alan Gottlieb, vice president for policy and business engagement at the Public Education and Business Coalition, and a personal acquaintance. On Thursday, the other Denver-area Democrat wrote “A Case for Life Skills Center”. A firsthand visit to the school convinced Gottlieb to alter his previous views that Life Skills should be shut down:

Why the change of heart? Simple. Life Skills Center is a last-gasp chance for young people who have already dropped out of school to reengage and get a diploma. DPS wrote into the school’s charter contract that it could recruit only those prospective students who had dropped out of school, and had been out of school for at least 60 days.

That’s a tough crowd to engage. So one would expect a high rate of failure, low attendance, and a lot of attrition. And that’s exactly what happens at Life Skills.

But something else happens as well. At least some kids apparently learn a significant amount, and go on to graduate. Some 80 percent of the school’s 260 students are in line to graduate within a year.

And according to Measures of Academic Progress, a national assessment Life Skills uses, students have been making over a year-and-a-half’s worth of growth in reading for each academic year. Since all Life Skills students read at far below grade level, they have to make these kinds of gains if they are ever to catch up.

Of course in math, students are making less than half a year’s progress each year, and in language just under a year. So the news is decidedly mixed.

Attendance rates of just over 50 percent also are nothing to brag about. But again, given who these kids are, the fact that many hold down multiple jobs, and that the attendance rate two years hovered around 40 percent, 50 percent looks like progress to me.

If DPS had a viable alternative for these kids, one that was being drained by the existence of Life Skills, I’d favor shutting down the school. But these are kids DPS has given up on, and vice-versa. What possible harm is there in giving them another chance, even if it’s less than ideal?

So Life Skills isn’t a particularly stellar school, but it’s the best public education option available to a particularly challenging group of kids. And it actually does significantly improve students’ reading skills and their chance to graduate. The opinion Gottlieb states in this post mirrors the words Bob Schaffer used last May to justify keeping Life Skills open: the only other alternative for its students is the streets.

Given these salient facts, the views of the other Alan seem highly disconnected from reality. Does Franklin have another alternative for the students at Life Skills? Can he point us to another public school program that could serve these kids if Life Skills closes down? Can he tell us why helping some kids rather than no kids constitutes failure? Can he tell us why the DPS Board’s vote to extend Life Skills’ probationary period somehow condemns last year’s vote by Schaffer and the State Board to put the school on probation in the first place?

The answer to all these question apparently is No. Hardly evidence of any intelligence – or compassion – from Franklin and ProgressNow.

The greatest contrast between the two Denver-area Democrat Alans is credibility. One, adding to his profile built on so many past propaganda attacks, badly twists the facts to try to fashion a hammer with which to hit Schaffer, who represents a threat to his narrow, Left-wing political agenda. The other, decidedly liberal but very practical and open to the benefits of education reform, visited the school and ends up echoing Schaffer’s position and rationale.

Hmm. When it comes to education matters, I’m giving a lot more credence to the second Alan.

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