Life Learning Academy (LLA), a San Francisco-based public charter school, builds greater equity in education for local young people. Founded in 1998 in an effort to reform San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice System, the school utilizes a number of innovative teaching methods and mission-driven programs to target historic gaps in opportunities and better meet the needs of its students. Based on Treasure Island, LLA opens its doors every year to approximately 60 of the community’s most vulnerable youth. A majority of its students come from low-income communities of color, experience significant trauma and have been involved in, or are at risk of involvement in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. LLA’s model focuses on reengaging these students by providing a safe, stable place for them to thrive. Now, after two and a half years of planning, the school is expanding its mission to include housing equity. With the opening of its new student dormitory in early 2019, LLA will provide its’ most vulnerable with stable housing, ultimately furthering the school’s mission of creating new pathways to success for young people living on the margins of opportunity.
The school’s award-winning academic program exposes its students to a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum and hands-on learning environment. From the culinary arts to courses in engineering, students are offered a wide range of disciplines to explore, and smaller class sizes help teachers focus on the specific needs of each student.
“What young people need is to see the various opportunities out there,” said Carol Kizziah, Life Learning Academy’s planning consultant. With equal emphasis, the school also provides a variety of resources to support each students’ social-emotional growth, workforce development, and life skills. “We run an internship program and partner with about 80 different organizations offering employment opportunities to our students each year. These kinds of programs allow our young people to have a much broader idea of what is possible,” said Kizziah.
Paid and unpaid internship opportunities throughout the school year help significantly improve students’ post-graduate prospects and success, while techniques aimed at developing students’ interpersonal and ‘soft skills,’ help provide students with a framework to build healthy relationships through peer support, respect, and accountability.
Despite LLA’s focus on developing a platform for youth empowerment, the school’s leadership noticed a subset of its students lacked access to stable housing and the structures necessary to fully take part in the services provided. Compounded by the current housing affordability crisis threatening Bay Area residents, the school decided it was time to step in and provide the necessary support many of its students were missing.
Approximately 1/3rd of LLA’s students are homeless or living in unstable housing conditions. The long-term implications of youth homelessness can be devastating, not only for the individual but for the community as well, exacerbating systems of economic and racial inequity. In response, LLA decided to embark on an initiative to build an on-site dormitory that will offer students access to safe, stable and supportive housing.
In 2016, LLA launched a capital campaign to raise money for construction. With support from a number of private foundations, corporations, government, and individual donors, the school successfully raised more than 50% of their funding goal. With Community Vision’s support, LLA received the additional financing needed to supplement their capital campaign and complete the construction. In June of 2018, Community Vision provided the organization with a $1.6 million bridge loan, which enabled the school to move forward with the project and meet their construction goals ahead of their 2019 opening date.
“I can honestly say if it weren’t for Community Vision, this project wouldn’t have gone forward. The team there worked really hard to provide us with the financing we needed, often very creatively finding solutions to put together the loan package that brought us to this point,” said Kizziah.
In the future, LLA plans to expand the dormitory to include several additional units. For now, the completion of the 6,400-square-foot building will provide housing to approximately 20% of the school’s students annually, not only providing necessary support to those whose futures depend on it, but also providing a sense of place in an era of housing insecurity.
“Everyone should have the opportunity to thrive,” said Sally Smyth, loan officer at Community Vision. “With their residential program, Life Learning Academy is providing a solution that is targeting and addressing inter-generational poverty. Providing safe, stable, and structured living environments for high school students who are committed to going to school but don’t have a supportive home environment is a necessary step in advancing economic and racial equity.”