On a sunny Tuesday morning, the day after Labor Day, tempers flared among some of the students at a small high school located on an island in the San Francisco Bay.
Two teenage girls yelled and cussed at each other in the halls. Staff moved quickly to de-escalate the situation. One of the girls went outside with the principal and another staff member to cool off.
“Emotions are running high,” said Teri Delane, executive director and founder of Life Learning Academy, a charter school in San Francisco Unified School District. “It is the first day back for the students after having three days off, which is always not good.”
Still, it was a typical start to a school week for the academy, a school comprised of about 70 teenagers, most of whom have been mixed up with the juvenile justice system, foster care or both, and have histories of fighting, using drugs and ditching class.
Delane said every week starts off a little tense, but by midweek, the students have mellowed out. She said that teenagers crave the structure and respond well to the small classes and caring staff at the school.
Even with a population of kids often classified as high risk and volatile, the staff said the students never get violent.
“We don’t have fights here,” Delane said. “We just don’t.”
The school doesn’t have any metal detectors or security guards, and the staff never restrain students. What keeps the peace, according to the staff and students, are the caring adults and dedicated students.
When a kid has an outburst, some schools react by sending the kid away, said Chief Operating Officer Craig Miller. “We put our arms around them.”
None of the kids are forced to be here. To get accepted, each one has to interview with Delane and agree to the rules, the most important one being absolutely no violence.
The students come from all over San Francisco, and some from the East Bay, to attend school on Treasure Island, a man-made island halfway between San Francisco and Oakland. The island is going through a period of revitalization, and in the years to come, might have a thriving residential and business community.
But today, the island is remote – a wide, flat expanse of dilapidated military buildings and empty lots. The school is situated among abandoned, boarded-up buildings with signs warning of asbestos. Across the street is a mountain of dirt taller than any nearby buildings. It is eerily quiet except for the occasional car driving by.
“Kids come out here and get a little detachment from everything else that is going on and just think about school,” Miller said.
For 20 years, the small school has been taking on high-risk youth relatively unnoticed. But like the redevelopment on the island, they have big plans for the future. Thanks to fundraising that garnered $1.2 million and an anonymous donation of $1.5 million, Delane will be moving forward to break ground in the coming months on her grandest plan yet: a 20- to 30-bed boarding school that is free for students.
The free boarding school offers a unique opportunity for her students, many whom have unstable living arrangements. Delane said that she could move in 15 kids right now if she could, five of whom are homeless.
This comes at a time when California is undergoing significant reforms aimed at reducing the use of placements like group homes in its child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Construction of the boarding school is set to begin in early 2018, around the same time that a new California law goes into effect regulating all boarding schools as group homes. With the new regulations, boarding schools will now have to provide written descriptions of the program and services provided, as well as require staff to be trained in specific subject areas
But exactly how building and operating a boarding school under the eye of Community Care Licensing, the state agency that oversees residential facilities for children and adults, will play out for students and staff isn’t fully understood.
“There is so much change going on right now,” Miller said, adding that they are tracking the law and consulting regularly with partners and advisors. “We will see what happens.”
But the uncertainty of the new law hasn’t put the brakes on the project so far.
“We are moving ahead because the need is so great. We can’t wait,” Miller said. “We have kids living in horrible conditions.”
Delane said that her students do very well when they are in the nurturing environment of her school. It is when they are not in school that they regress to old behaviors and, sometimes, get into trouble.
That’s is what happened to 16-year-old Mario* during the summer. Last school year, Mario was doing well in school and was being groomed for a student leadership role.
But during the summer, he went back to his old ways and got in trouble.
“I went to jail for some stupid stuff,” he said. Delane intervened and got him into a group home in San Francisco.
Back in school, Mario appeared to back on track.
“Here, everybody cares about you,” he said. “[The staff and teachers] want you to succeed. It is not just a job for them.”
If Mario could, he would live at the boarding school.
Helen* is another success story. The 14-year-old girl has mellowed out considerably since arriving at the school a year ago. Starting in elementary school, she was a fighter.
“I would do a lot of things to my teachers,” she said. “I would steal from them. Fight them. Try to throw chairs at them. I had anger issues.” The adolescent also said that she became affiliated with a gang and popped pills, mainly Xanax.
Helen eventually landed at the academy. At first, she didn’t like it one bit.
“I came here and was mugging [giving people dirty looks] everybody and everything,” she said. But then, “Teri told me about her past.”
Delane told Helen the same story she openly shares with everyone in her orbit: about being a teenage heroin user in the ‘60s and how at 14 she had a needle in her arm. At 20, Delane found help in a community of recovering drug users at a place called Delancey Street in San Francisco.
She moved into Delancey Street at 20 and never left. Today, Delane has been off heroin for 40 years and still lives rent-free at Delancey, one of three post-graduate residents. She went back to school, got two master’s degrees and a doctorate in clinical psychology. She opened the Life Learning Academy in 1998 to help troubled youth, like she had once been, get help.
Delane modeled the school after what she learned at Delancey Street, a drug rehabilitation community focused on hard work, responsibility, family and helping the community. And like the residents of Delancey Street, the students have to maintain the school.
“They do all the cleaning they do all the cooking,” Delane said. “They do all the painting while they are in school and it makes them feel a part of it, which is what we do at Delancey. It is how that place got built.”
And guess who will help build the new boarding school?
Mario, Helen and the rest of the Life Learning Academy’s 70 students.
* Mario and Helen’s names have been altered to protect their privacy.