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Ohio firm succeeds with new ways of educating dropouts

Life Skills schools emphasize computer labs, constant testing
by Linda Seebach, Detroit News, December 22, 2002

Do states need new kinds of schools that educate high school dropouts?
David Brennan started in Ohio, but give him time and he'll plant his Life Skills schools everywhere in the country where there are kids who have given up on high school. And that's just about everywhere.

Brennan is a manufacturing executive from Akron, Ohio, who found himself inadvertently in the business of education when he discovered many of the workers he hired didn't have enough of it. Having started with in-plant schooling for employees, and later for their families, he has moved on to packaging what he has learned about learning into a model for charter schools.

In 1998, he started White Hat Management, which manages schools in Ohio, Arizona and Florida. The company's Life Skills Centers serve high school dropouts with an individualized, computer-based program combining education with work or community service. Graduates earn a regular diploma, not a GED.

Here is how Brennan's model works.

Students spend four hours a day in school, one hour in a life-skills class and three in a 50-station computer lab, staffed by three teachers and two aides. Their progress is based on testing, not seat time, with as many as 12 or 15 tests a year in, say, English. Brennan says he's seen a bright child make a year's progress in math in as little as four weeks.

"We start them a little early," he says, "so they see great achievement right away."

For some, he adds, "it's the first time ever they've succeeded in school."

From a third to a half of students who start the program quit, Brennan says.

If that sounds discouraging, remember that these are kids who have already dropped out -- or been forced out, as he puts it -- and reclaiming half or more of them is as good a record as is posted by many large urban districts with their entire school population. Furthermore, he says, of those who do stay 30 days, 85 percent eventually graduate. They stay in the program up to two years.

The schools are open year-round, for 46 weeks a year, and that is the teachers' work schedule as well. In Ohio, the company offers courses for teachers to complete their certification. And in addition to teaching staff, the schools have social workers and employment counselors who integrate learning with work.

"We find them jobs," he says.

So sitting at a computer for a few hours every day is not your idea of a traditional high-school education. That's just the point, isn't it?

"Traditional" doesn't work for everybody, so there should be other choices.

Brennan is a strong supporter of school choice -- all kinds -- and played a significant role in the Cleveland school voucher plan that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

In fact, Brennan said, the more students are struggling, the more effective computer-aided instruction is for them -- "private, color-blind, under their control," he says.

If the company has to build a school, Brennan says, it can do so for $5 million -- even though the Akron district spends $25 million on theirs. If a district has empty school buildings, as Dayton, Ohio, does, it may use those. But it's not wedded to traditional spaces any more than to traditional instruction. Often Life Skills students are street kids, and 15,000-20,000 square feet in a strip mall, on bus lines, suits the students better.

Brennan has the numbers all mapped out. A typical center can serve about 700 students, with a student-teacher ratio of 11-to-1 (and a computer ratio of 1-to-1). In an urban area, he believes, there's a need for approximately one such center for each 150,000 population.

In addition to the centers for high-school students, White Hat operates 10 HOPE Academies, K-8 charter schools in Ohio that use Direct Instruction as their teaching method, and OHDELA, the Ohio Distance and Electronic Learning Academy, a school chartered through the University of Toledo that primarily serves home-schooling families.

Brennan named his company for the white Stetson he likes to wear. Seems just about right.

Linda Seebach writes for Scripps Howard News Service. Write letters to


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