Dr. Teri Delane is the founding Principal of the Life Learning Academy in San Francisco. The Life Learning Academy (LLA) is a tuition-free San Francisco Unified School District charter high school, located on Treasure Island, and founded in 1998 by the non-profit Delancey Street Foundation. It is committed to creating a nonviolent community for students who have not been successful in traditional school settings.
LLA is designed specifically to serve the highest-need students in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Nearly all LLA students come from low-income households, with 85% qualifying for free or reduced lunch. Most students are involved in or at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. Many of LLA’s new enrollees report histories of physical and substance abuse, and more than half have parents known to abuse drugs or alcohol. Nearly half report current or past gang affiliation, and the majority have profound histories of school failure and truancy.
"We get kids that no one else wants and kids who are lost in the big school system," Teri says. "All of these kids here are what people consider at risk. It doesn't mean all of them have been in jail but about 50-60% have been arrested. Thirty percent are on probation."
Delane can relate to her students because of the tough times she went through growing up.
"I was using heroin from age 14," she says. "I spent a year locked up in Caliente youth prison in Nevada at 16. By the time I was 20, I overdosed for the third time."
Delane got help from Delancey Street, the renowned San Francisco-based self-help program for drug addicts and ex-offenders. Teri entered Delancey Street in the early 70s as a teenage prostitute, drug addict and school drop-out. At Delancey Street she went on to get her college B.A., two Masters' Degrees and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Then 17 years ago, with the help of Delancey Street staff, she opened this school, and brought with her the program’s strong commitment to non-violence.
"We don’t have cops here. We don’t have security here," she says. "We have kids that have given me their word to (practice) non-violence."
Since its founding in 1998, LLA has never had a fight on campus. The school requires an unwavering commitment to nonviolence, and maintains a culture free of bullying, threats, and intimidation by building peer support, conducting groups for conflict resolution, and offering students the means to regain good standing within the school community. When tensions do arise, students and staff intervene to resolve conflict and keep the school culture safe and positive.
No fighting is just the beginning of the bigger goal of having everyone actually get along with each other. It’s a goal reached every day around the lunch table. At Life Learning Academy, lunch is a big deal, cooked up from fresh ingredients by a resident chef and student interns. The entire school population – staff and students – sits together as a family every day.
With 60 full-time students, a teacher-student ratio of 1:6, and unique courses such as Culinary Arts, Engineering, Organic Gardening and Digital Media Storytelling, LLA's multidisciplinary team of educators, counselors, peers and alumni use dynamic, hands-on learning and interdisciplinary, project-based classes that challenge students to develop strong academic, critical thinking, and teamwork skills across subject areas. LLA helps students earn employment opportunities while enrolled, provides one-on-one college and career counseling, and rewards graduates with access to a scholarship fund that has awarded over $15,000 in scholarship support for college costs since 2010.
"The best way to change your life is by helping others," Teri says. "I was kicked out of school in the ninth grade with a serious heroin abuse problem. I spent a year locked in a juvenile detention facility. After an overdose, the Delancey Street Foundation saved my life by surrounding me with people who would not allow me to fail. I teach that the best way to change your life is by helping others."
And what change she is helping bring about. Life Learning Academy boasts an extraordinary success rate. Compared to the 80% California high school graduation rate, 99% of LLA students earn their diploma and 85% go on to earn a college degree. It has been recognized as a model school by the California Department of Education and the national Coalition of Essential Schools, and as a model Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act program by state leaders and local law enforcement. LLA was the California Charter Schools Association’s 2010 Charter School of the Year, and was a finalist in the 2004 Kennedy School of Government's Innovations in American Government Awards. LLA has provided training, tours and replication materials to hundreds of educators and lawmakers worldwide. In 2012, LLA received the full 6-year re-accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
"When I got lucky enough to get my life together and come to Delancey street, I [got] lucky enough to be able to give it back," Teri tells her students. "Every day, that’s what I have to do."
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