The First Step

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

The controversy hasn't affected the company's popularity, however. In 1998 it reported $54 million in revenues, according to Schreiber, and now has a series of self-awareness seminars -- The Forum; The Landmark Forum in Action Seminar, a ten-evening class in which participants focus on their "personal commitments, relationships, projects and goals"; The Landmark Advanced Course, a four-day workshop where participants are given "the tools for creating a future that is informed by the past but not limited or restricted by it"; and The Landmark Self-Expression and Leadership Program, which prepares participants to go on to train other people.

It all sounded like a bunch of psychobabble to Linda Reilly. She figured that if adults, who willingly and knowingly sign up for Landmark seminars, want to attend, that was their prerogative. But should kids -- particularly at-risk kids -- be participating in a similar-seeming program?

She posed that question to teachers, administrators and boardmembers, as well as to Rex Brown, P.S.1's executive director, and Steve Myers, the new principal who'd come to P.S.1 in the fall. When it became clear that the majority of her colleagues supported the Steps Ahead program, she decided she could no longer remain at the school, where she had done everything from clean toilets and teach classes to manage the school's finances.

Charting a course: P.S.1 charter school was designed to be an urban learning environment for its 240 students.
David Rehor
Charting a course: P.S.1 charter school was designed to be an urban learning environment for its 240 students.

Colorado Youth at Risk, as it turns out, was inspired by the Breakthrough Foundation, a nonprofit organization that originally grew out of est. The Foundation's primary program was called Youth at Risk (there are now twelve other YAR organizations worldwide), in which troubled teens attend ten-day retreats and meet with mentors.

Glenna Norvelle was a marketing director for Fox Sports almost a decade ago when she was introduced to a teenage girl who had participated in a Youth at Risk program in another city. Norvelle's boyfriend, Michael Donahue (now her husband), worked at a Denver law firm that was holding a golf tournament to raise money to help the girl establish a Youth at Risk program in Denver. Donahue took Norvelle to the tournament, where she watched a videotape produced by Chicago Youth at Risk. She was impressed, and decided to volunteer at a ten-day retreat sponsored by the Youth at Risk program in Oakland, California, in 1992.

"What attracted me was that I saw both young people and adults from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds do things they didn't think they could do," Norvelle says, referring to the outdoor ropes activities like the ones that P.S.1 students did. "I had been a Big Sister before, but this looked like a more comprehensive program; it was about creating a community instead of adults just doing things for kids."

(There is no formal association for Youth at Risk nationwide, so the programs vary from city to city. But they all conduct launch courses, they all have mentoring and follow-through sessions, and they all center around the themes of building respect and integrity.)

Norvelle eventually teamed up with a friend who had experience in the nonprofit sector and one who had worked for Phoenix Youth at Risk, and they began to raise money. Colorado Youth at Risk was incorporated in 1993 and for the past three years has offered Steps Ahead to students at East High School -- the only Denver public school other than P.S.1 to offer the program.

Wes Ashley, dean of students at East High, says that he's never heard any complaints about Steps Ahead in his school and that he's never heard of Landmark Education. "Because I'm in charge of discipline, I refer kids to the program, and that's the extent of my involvement," he says. "But I know it's been successful. A lot of kids have turned their lives around; we would have lost a lot of these kids had [Colorado Youth at Risk] not stepped in."

CYAR also offers Touchstone at East High, a leadership program for students who have completed Steps Ahead; the kids in Touchstone work with a coach on quarterly projects that revolve around community service and relationship-building.

Although Norvelle, who went on the retreat with her husband, and P.S.1's Brown and Myers insist that Steps Ahead is not a kiddie version of the Landmark Forum, Youth at Risk, via its affiliation with the Breakthrough Foundation, does have roots in Landmark.

In the January 9, 1989, issue of Crain's Chicago Business, Art Schreiber, then chief operating officer of Werner Erhard & Associates, wrote a letter to the editor clarifying an earlier article about the company.

"With respect to the Chicago Youth at Risk, several years ago, Mr. Erhard sold the rights to a program he had developed for troubled teens to an international non-profit organization called the Breakthrough Foundation," Schreiber wrote. "The Breakthrough Foundation works with youths who are juvenile delinquents or who are headed in that direction. Over the years, Mr. Erhard has supported the Breakthrough Foundation by informing participants in courses offered by Werner Erhard & Associates of the foundation's work."

Many people who are involved in Youth at Risk are aware of the connection, and some have been a part of Landmark themselves. In a February 25 memo that CYAR mentor Clay Carson sent to fellow mentors, he wrote, "As some of you know, the philosophy of Colorado Youth at Risk is based in a conversation that originated with a company called Landmark Education (Basically -- the stuff that we all learned, and that the kids were taught up in the mountains). All of the program leaders have been through this work and been part of the conversation (as have some of the mentors).

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