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Beloved Highlands Ranch teacher dies

Students credit Joe Chandler for saving and changing lives


As a Highlands Ranch High School student, Adam Rhodes was so disinterested in school he drew giraffes on his ACT and SAT test forms.

Today, Rhodes owns a successful custom art and clothing company Dive Ink, and soon may be appearing on the “Ink Master” tattoo artists' competition reality show. At 21, he is so financially comfortable he considers himself largely retired.

He credits it all to former HRHS teacher Joe Chandler, who died unexpectedly Oct. 12.

“The only reason I'm here, doing exactly what I do today, is because of Joe Chandler,” Rhodes said, adding that without Chandler's guidance he knows he wouldn't have finished high school.

“He's the reason a lot of kids are either alive or where they are now,” Rhodes said.

Chandler, 46, collapsed while on a fall break cruise with his wife, Sue Chandler, who said her husband's family has a history of heart conditions. According to Sue, he did not regain consciousness despite multiple efforts to revive him.

He leaves behind his wife, four children, and a stunned collection of current and former students.

Chandler taught Alternative Cooperative Education (ACE) at HRHS, classes designed for at-risk students, since the program's inception in 2007. Under Chandler's direction, the state-sanctioned ACE was recognized as the best among 111 such programs in Colorado.

“There are 150 kids who would not have walked across the graduation stage without Joe being part of their lives,” said Sue, who met her future husband while both were college students in Washington. “From the time I met him, he knew he wanted to teach.

“He always taught those kids that fall between the cracks or are challenged. He was a friend. He was a father. He was a mentor. He made those kids who might otherwise be invisible in high school extraordinarily visible.”

HRHS Principal Jerry Goings said Chandler's death is a huge loss for the school.

“You move on and hopefully find someone who will meet the kids' needs and continue with the strong program we have, but he's not replaceable,” Goings said. “When you're teaching at-risk kids, you have to find a way to get to their hearts before you get to their minds. They're shut down; they don't trust adults. Joe had a special talent for getting to their hearts and breaking down barriers.”

ACE senior Kenny Robertson said he was a rebellious freshman when he started HRHS.

“I just hated school. I never showed up to my classes,” Robertson said. “Mr. Chandler took me in.

“At first, it was like a steady flow of Fs. But then (my grades) suddenly started going up. Last year, he gave me the ACE kid-of-the-year certificate award. It's framed and hanging next to my bed.”

Recently, Robertson tucked behind the frame a copy of the program from Chandler's memorial service and the speech Robertson read there.

Halloween day, he went to former ACE classmate Adam Rhodes' shop to get what he calls his Mr. Chandler tattoo.

“I got an American traditional coffee mug on my right calf that says, `Real men drink coffee black,' cause that's how he would start every morning with me, by telling me that. If you're a true ACE kid, you're going to know exactly what that means.”

Both Robertson and Rhodes are dedicated to keeping the ACE class going. Rhodes, who frequently came to the high school to talk to ACE students about his career, plans to keep doing so. Robertson will be on the interview committee for the next ACE teacher. They're doing it for both the students who need the program and in their former teacher's memory.

“Chandler never won an award for Apple teacher of the year,” Robertson said. “He never cared. He would always look at us and be like, `I'm so proud of you guys.' I feel like, in his eyes, we were his trophies.”


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