By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Renelle Anderson-Wright knew exactly what to expect before giving her daughter, Ariana, permission to enroll in Steps Ahead. Ariana's father attended a meeting at the school before the launch course, and although Renelle was unable to go to that, she visited the school to learn about the program. "There is no excuse for parents not to know what the program is about," she says. "I can see why it's controversial, though. Some parents may not be comfortable with their kids doing a tell-all, where they relive family issues and bring their skeletons out of the closet. It's definitely not for everyone, that's for sure. But we're an open family, and I think it's a lot healthier for kids to talk about things than to end up in therapy at age forty because they can't deal with their past."
And although three students dropped out of Steps Ahead, others say the program has turned their lives around.
"Everything we did up there was completely voluntary," says Sol Johnson-Mey, who attended the March retreat. "I wanted to learn more about who I am; it was an opportunity to get my own mind working for myself. They taught us how to show our real selves. Most people put on different masks to hide what they're feeling. We learned how to take those down. I feel more dedicated now. I used to want to skip school, but now I like being here. People are taking our enthusiasm about ourselves and saying that we're brainwashed because they're not used to seeing people so enthusiastic."
Aron Topping had heard good and bad things after the first retreat, so he decided to go on the second one to see for himself. "It's definitely worth the five days," he says. "They take the clouds from your eyes so you can see clearly."
And Chicobey Fischer says he learned about setting goals and taking responsibility. "Before we went on the trip, we had a pre-course meeting where they told us we'd be stepping out of our comfort zones and emptying our cups. We were told what to expect right from the beginning. I don't understand what's the problem," he says.
Reilly is most bothered by the fact that the school's board of directors didn't inform the Denver Board of Education about the controversy when its charter was up for renewal.
"I was in charge of the charter renewal. We had to prove what we'd done the first five years while planning for the next five years. I said that I can't be the one going through negotiations with the district because I don't know where the school is going. Anyone will tell you it's not the same school it once was," she says. "Two of the values that have always been important to P.S.1 are diversity and individuality. To me, this whole movement is away from these two values. This program is not about diversity and individuality; it's about conformity."
That's why Reilly stepped down in December. But before she left, she and Luke Beatty aired their concerns before the school's nine-member board of directors.
"We felt they were taking the psychic lives of children into their own hands and that they weren't being up front about their methodologies," says Beatty, who is leaving P.S.1 after this year. "I have no problem with Landmark, and if adults want to do it or if parents want to enroll their kids on their own, that's fine, but it has no business being in a public school. Linda and I said that not conveying this issue to the Board of Education would be an issue of non-disclosure. We suggested that they postpone the charter renewal."
Despite their pleas, the P.S.1 board of directors unanimously passed three resolutions: one formally recognizing Reilly for her contributions and accepting her resignation; one supporting Myers; and one stating that personal development is the same as professional development. Reilly and Had Beatty both told Denver Board of Education president Elaine Berman about their concerns, and Berman suggested that Brown hire an independent consultant to evaluate the Steps Ahead program.
Berman says her involvement in the matter ended there. "I don't think the school district or the school board should be meddling in the day-to-day operations of a charter school," she says. "As long as they adhere to their contract and follow Colorado law, it's not our role to get involved."
Brown never hired someone to evaluate the program, and on February 24, the Denver Board of Education renewed P.S.1's charter for another five years. "It was not an issue of concern to Denver Public Schools, because it was an issue at our school," Brown says. "Our board was aware of it, and we looked into it. We got materials on Landmark Education other than the Web page on cults," he adds, explaining that he felt the Harvard study and one by the University of Southern California determined Landmark was a sound business. "We decided there was no need for some outside person to come in."
That attitude, and the atmosphere at charter schools that allows it to flourish, has Reilly worried about the future of education in Colorado. Although charter schools technically answer to the board of education in their district, Colorado law gives them the leeway to offer any curriculum they want and to hire any teachers or administrators they want, regardless of their credentials.