The First Step

P.S.1's changing course leaves some people wondering what direction the charter school is taking.

Tuesday, September 7, 1999. It's the beginning of a new school year, and it's going to be a big one for P.S.1, Denver's oldest charter school. As P.S.1 enters its sixth year of existence, its charter will be up for renewal by the Denver Board of Education, and teachers and administrators would like to ensure its continued success.

P.S.1's founders hatched the idea for a school for fifth- through twelfth-graders in 1993, when charter schools were still a new phenomenon in public education. It had a rocky start, but because of its innovative class projects, ethnic diversity and service to the central Denver community -- students helped the Colorado Historical Society archive the media coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing trial, worked with the Denver City Council to design a skateboard park, built homes for hurricane victims in Honduras and houses for low-income families in Denver's Globeville neighborhood -- P.S.1 has been lauded as an example for other charter schools to follow.

When the Board of Education considers whether to give it the go-ahead for another five years, P.S.1's founders must prove that the school has lived up to its charter and present their plans for the future.

Wednesday, November 17, 1999. Twenty-eight P.S.1 students between the grades of seven and twelve are on their way to the Covenant Heights Conference Center near Estes Park, where, they've been told, they'll have "an intense experience." The five-day mountain retreat is the kickoff of the yearlong Steps Ahead program, offered by a nonprofit organization called Colorado Youth at Risk. The point of the retreat is to get kids excited about becoming better students and better people.

But the program doesn't end there. Adult mentors will be paired with students, and the whole group will meet monthly throughout the rest of the year to ensure that the kids stick to their goals. The plan is to hold two retreats -- one in the fall and one in the spring -- with another group of kids joining Steps Ahead the second time around.

The students who agreed to go on the retreat were chosen by teachers and CYAR staff members because they are considered to be "at risk" of dropping out of school or engaging in risky behavior, such as using drugs and alcohol and having sex. In the days before the retreat, students had to fill out applications that asked the following questions: Have you ever been pregnant?

Have you fathered any children?

Do you consider yourself gay, lesbian or bisexual?

Do you or any of your family have a drug or alcohol problem?

Have you ever had thoughts of killing yourself?

In addition, the kids were interviewed by a school counselor before they were approved for the trip. The counselor asked them to describe their relationships with their parents, stepparents, grandparents and siblings and to explain what they wanted to get out of the personal-growth program.

Once they arrive at the conference center, students spend the rest of the day familiarizing themselves with their new surroundings and choosing their bunks.

Thursday, November 18, 1999. The students wake up early and begin the day with a mile-long run. Most of them are out of shape and find the exercise grueling. They're told to give it their all or to not bother trying. Most finish the run, even though they curse and pant the whole way.

After breakfast, they spend most of the day and night in the "course room" -- the main conference hall in the lodge -- where they're asked to share whatever is troubling them. But first, they meditate and hum. A set of director's chairs is positioned in front of the room facing the area where the students sit. The man leading the session, Derek Canty, a youth trainer from Seattle whom CYAR asked to join the retreat, sits in front. The other adults -- including five who are associated with CYAR, three teachers, P.S.1's principal and a few mentors -- sit in the back.

Students aren't allowed to leave the room without an adult escort, and they can go to the bathroom only during breaks. They're supposed to give one another their full attention. When a student is talking, he sits in front of the group, next to Derek. The other students sit on the edges of their seats and listen. Some tell tales of sexual abuse, drug use and low self-esteem. Others talk about bad relationships with parents, siblings and friends. Most of them cry.

But it's okay to cry -- that's the first sign of a breakthrough, a word that CYAR staff members begin to use repeatedly. Once the tears stop and the sense of peace that follows a good, long sob has washed over them, the kids have begun the transformation that leads to self-awareness.

"People told things they've never told anyone ever before," says Ariana Wright, a fourteen-year-old eighth-grader at P.S.1 who shared some painful memories. "When I went up there, they spent an hour on me. They had told us to separate fact from opinion. One of the beliefs I had was that I was dirty, but I learned that that was an opinion. By the end of the night I was able to look in the mirror and say, 'I'm Ariana Wright: beautiful, courageous, powerful and not to blame.' I was in tears when I was done sharing, but I was able to sleep peacefully that night. I felt really good after I got all that out, like when you're sick and you throw up and then you feel better."

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