The First Step

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

The youth trainers who lead the course stress the importance of leaving the past where it belongs.

The rest of the retreat is divided between more sharing sessions and outdoor activities. One activity has kids climbing forty feet up a tree and standing on a tiny perch. The students, who are secured by a harness, have to jump out and reach for a trapeze that's dangling about ten feet in front of them. Some of them don't want to do it. They look down at the ground below and get queasy. Their knees shake. Some cry, they're so scared. Others laugh nervously.

The adults shout out encouragement, using personal information learned during the sharing sessions. They says things like: Let go of your past. If you're ever going to talk to your father again, take the first step now. Leave your troubles behind you on that perch. Reach out -- your new future is waiting for you.

Taking a stand: Ariana Wright, Aron Topping and Sol Johnson-Mey (left to right) enjoyed the Steps Ahead program.
David Rehor
Taking a stand: Ariana Wright, Aron Topping and Sol Johnson-Mey (left to right) enjoyed the Steps Ahead program.

"It took me 45 minutes to jump. I was scared to death," Ariana says. "We had to let go of something up there, and we had to think of something we wanted out of our life. I left my limiting beliefs up there. When I was let down, everyone hugged me."

Another activity has students swinging across a ravine on a pulley; in still another, they climb a wall and then fall backward, trusting their classmates to catch them. The adults again use personal information that the kids disclosed in the group sessions or on their application to encourage them to face their fears and take a symbolic leap into the unknown.

Back in the course room, the trainers go over the principles they expect students to adhere to: commitment, responsibility, integrity, respect, and being part of a team. The students admit to what holds them back from reaching their full potential and describe the "masks" -- another CYAR term -- behind which they hide. One kid says he acts like the class clown but that deep down he has a serious side; another says he plays dumb because he grew up being told that he was a mistake; one girl says she acts like a dumb blonde to avoid confrontation. For the remainder of the retreat, the students are reminded of their masks every time they slip into their old routines.

Before they leave, the kids decide what "stands" they plan to take. Some take a stand against smoking; some vow not to use hard drugs; others promise to attend school regularly. By the end of the five days, the students, teachers and CYAR staff members are a tight-knit group.

Monday, November 22, 1999. Every Monday morning, P.S.1 holds a meeting called "convocation," where news items such as birthdays and students of the month are announced. Convocation is held in an open central area. The school, which is located in the old Rocky Mountain Bank Note Building, at 1062 Delaware Street, is loft-like, with brick walls and exposed ceiling pipes. All 240 students attend the convocation gatherings, which typically last 45 minutes. But on this particular Monday, the meeting lasts an hour and a half.

The students who are part of the Steps Ahead program stand in front of the room hugging and talking about the breakthroughs they've had, the masks they've shed and the stands they've chosen to take. Sometimes they're on "AM" and other times they're on "FM," they tell the others, using more CYAR lingo. They post large sticky notes on the walls bearing their new mottos: "I believe in myself" and "I can be whatever I want."

They talk about how much the retreat has changed them and how the group is their family. The adults who went on the retreat cheer the students as they run around the room with all the pent-up energy of caged animals, jumping on the carpeted blocks that serve as a stage. They can't convey just how much this program has meant to them. They're so jubilant, they're in tears. These kids are on fire.

The display left Linda Reilly, one of the school's founders, with a hollow feeling in her stomach. "By using language that's never been used before, it suggested that 'we know something you don't, and if you want to see the light, you should join, too,'" she recalls. "There was a cult-like feel to it. I thought, 'This isn't my school anymore.'"

Reilly had put in seventy-hour weeks for a couple of years to get the school started, but that night, she felt like quitting. When she told two fellow members of the school's board of directors that she was thinking of leaving, they asked why. So she described what she had witnessed earlier that day. They told her that the kids' words and actions sounded strikingly similar to something they had recently attended: the "graduation" of a P.S.1 teacher who had just completed the Landmark Forum.

Reilly had never heard of the Landmark Forum, so she turned on her computer and did some Internet research. What she found disturbed her. The accounts she read on Web sites and in newspaper articles of what people experienced in the Forum -- an introductory three-day, $350 self-help course that a company called the Landmark Education Corporation offers in more than one hundred cities around the world -- matched what she heard had happened at the Steps Ahead "launch course" and what she'd seen afterward.

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