SCHOOL'S OUT

WHY IS P.S. 1 THE ONLY NEW CHARTER SCHOOL TO SURVIVE? ASK DPS.

In November 1992 Colorado voters defeated a voucher proposal. The Colorado General Assembly responded in 1993 with the Colorado Charter Schools Act. The state gives each district a certain number of dollars based on the number of students enrolled; the charter schools act requires a district to give an approved charter school from 80 percent to 100 percent of that money for each student in that school.

Of course, the key word here is approved. Charter school originators must send a proposal to their school-district boards, which have great latitude in rejecting proposals deemed too expensive, incomplete, or simply incompetent. Rejections can be appealed to the state Board of Education, whose legal right to overturn appeals is the crux of the battle over Thurgood Marshall.

Among those seeking approval from the DPS board in 1993 were the proponents for Thurgood Marshall, the Denver Youth Academy, P.S. 1 and Clayton Charter School. The only one to open was Clayton, which already existed as a school for at-risk children in kindergarten through second grade, funded in part by foundation money.

The Marshall school was the brainchild of two DPS teachers who questioned the amount of money the district was spending outside the classroom. They proposed a school to open in the fall of 1994 with fewer students per teacher and rigorous academic standards geared for getting kids--especially minority kids--prepared for college. Their students would be required to wear uniforms and become proficient in English and Spanish as well as computer skills.

Marshall was in trouble from the start ("Charter Members," March 29, 1994). Few boardmembers argued with the school's basic concept, but they said the proponents wanted too much money--almost 100 percent of what the district received per student, as well as money to renovate an old DPS building.

Marshall's supporters appealed to the Board of Education, which eventually ordered the district to grant the charter and negotiate the funding. Since then the district and the Marshall supporters have quibbled back and forth about the funding and a building.

But more important, the squabble kicked off a battle between the state board and DPS in which Thurgood Marshall is little more than a piece of meat between two dogs. DPS has spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to contend that the state board has no constitutional right to interfere in local district decisions; the state board feels otherwise.

A few weeks ago, Cordia Booth, one of the DPS teachers who came up with the proposal, vowed she would "never walk away" from her dream of opening the school. But, she conceded, that day would have to be put off for another year--at least.

Meanwhile, Denver Area Youth Services, a private, nonprofit agency that provides job training and counseling for inner-city youths, has given up its attempt to create the Denver Youth Academy. The academy, which would have provided specialized attention for at-risk sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, actually got as far as a contract with the district and looked forward to opening last fall.

Again, the two sides couldn't agree on a school site. The opening was postponed after DPS offered to share a couple of its buildings with the school.

"They didn't want anything connected to DPS," says DPS boardmember Lynn Coleman. "They felt the image was too negative."

The district offered the old Dennison School at Jewell and Sheridan--provided the neighborhood association went for it. It took only one meeting with the neighbors last spring to nix that idea.

"Basically, the neighborhood didn't want at-risk kids around," says David Martinez, deputy director of Denver Area Youth Services. The district wasn't willing to come up with the $150,000 or so in start-up money so that the academy could lease a building.

In June, the agency "reluctantly" pulled its contract with the district. "We basically ran out of time and money," Martinez says. "Without a building and enough start-up money, we couldn't recruit staff or students.

"Anything's possible. But right now, I'd say it's dead."
Unlike Thurgood Marshall's supporters, Martinez says he really has no hard feelings toward the school board, which he understands has budgetary problems. He believes that if the legislature created the charter schools act, it should at least have come up with some start-up funding.

With Marshall and the academy out, that left P.S. 1. The school was originally proposed as opening its doors with 120 students the first year and tripling in size by the third year. The board rejected the first proposal, and its supporters faced the same bickering over money, space and resources that the other charter schools had to deal with. The contract approved last week allows for sixty students and a full-time staff of six. The district agreed to fork over 90 percent of what it receives for each student--or about $4,100 per student.

Rex Brown, the main organizer for the school proposal and a senior fellow with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, describes P.S. 1 as an "urban school," with part of the curriculum dedicated to inner-city issues. Each student will have an individualized program, progressing at his own pace. The curriculum will be interdisciplinary and include a lot of hands-on work in urban neighborhoods while also stressing basic literacy.

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