The First Step

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

The conversation eventually materialized into the concept of P.S.1, an interdisciplinary school with a strong emphasis on community service and project-based learning in the middle of the city, one that could offer an alternative to the typical classroom where students sit at desks and take notes and would allow kids to apply what they learn in the classroom to the world outside. The LoDo plan fell through, but Brown decided to open P.S.1 in the Golden Triangle instead.

Reilly was studying public administration at the University of Colorado at Denver and raising three young children when she first read about the proposed charter school. She liked the idea of small class sizes and an individualized teaching approach, so she called Brown and asked how she could get involved. She began by volunteering to help get the school started and eventually became a member of the school's board of directors. She even enrolled two of her kids in P.S.1, but they've since switched to other schools for reasons unrelated to the Steps Ahead program.

Getting the school approved by the Denver Board of Education wasn't easy. Boardmembers weren't convinced that Brown's plans were specific enough, and the state eventually had to order the school district to fund P.S.1. Finally, in 1995, P.S.1 opened its doors to sixty students as Denver's second charter school.

Of P.S.1's current $1.7 million budget, $1.1 million comes from the Denver Public School District; the rest comes from grants and donations.

P.S.1 stands for Public School No. 1, in tribute to the way urban public schools were once named. When it opened, classes were held in the VFW building at 901 Bannock Street. The only other charter school in Denver Public Schools at the time was the Clayton charter school in northeast Denver. (There are now three other charter schools in DPS, and the Board of Education just approved three more.) Clayton has since closed, but P.S.1 went on to make a name for itself.

During a visit to Denver in March 1999, where he attended the Charter Schools National Conference, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley told the P.S.1 staff, "I'm so proud of what you all are doing here."

Both Denver dailies have run glowing editorials about P.S.1. In a March 7, 1999, Rocky Mountain News piece, editorial writer Linda Seebach wrote, "Denver's charter school P.S.1, five years old and soon to graduate its first senior class, exemplifies what the charter movement is all about."

The Denver Post followed suit on February 24, 2000, with an editorial noting "the astonishing success of P.S.1 charter school."

So when Reilly started speaking out about Steps Ahead, she knew she'd be taking an unpopular stance. But what troubled her more than the fact that changes were being made at the school, she says, is the clandestine way in which those changes were introduced. "Had we had some discourse about what [Steps Ahead] really was and then agreed to it, that'd be one thing. If everyone agreed to this Landmark program, they should have renamed P.S.1 the Landmark School," Reilly says. "But there had been no discussion at the board level or at the staff level."

Reilly says she and Brown had been talking about how to better serve the school's growing number of at-risk kids, so they decided to take advantage of the organization that was already located in their building. When Norvelle explained the Steps Ahead program, Reilly thought it sounded like a good thing -- kids going to the mountains and bonding for five days and then being paired with mentors.

It sounded good to Luke Beatty, too. Beatty, the dean of students at P.S.1, even encouraged his father, Had, a retired attorney, to be a mentor to a Steps Ahead student.

In October, Had attended a three-day orientation session for mentors. At the training, which was held at P.S.1, youth trainers played videos of past retreats they'd been on with East High School students. The videos showed kids doing the ropes course, a popular team-building and self-esteem-raising curriculum used in many outdoor education programs. "The Steps Ahead CYAR trainers said it was an 'intense' program -- they used the word 'intense' a lot, but they never said why it was intense or what would really be going on," Had says. "They talked a lot about how to communicate with your mentee. They said there are AM and FM conversations. An 'arrested motion' conversation is not constructive; if a kid says, 'My mom sucks,' that's an AM conversation. A 'forward motion' conversation is positive, though; if a kid says, 'I'm having problems with my mom because...,' that's an FM conversation. It was new to me, but being a parent, I could understand their effort to make communicating with the kids easier.

"They told us we had to be true to our word, because some of these kids have been let down in the past," he continues. "You can't say you'll pick a kid up at 10 and then show up at 11 and expect them to be true to their word. We were told that if we don't stand up to our word, we have to acknowledge it and ask the other person what damage it's done. There were a lot of rules, but they sounded reasonable."

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