The First Step

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

Had went to the retreat on Friday, two days after it had started. Luke Beatty, who had gone up to the retreat for part of Thursday, came back to Denver and told his dad that he didn't like what he'd seen: kids exposing their deepest secrets and not being allowed to leave the course room without being accompanied by an adult.

Had didn't pay much attention to Luke's concerns. "I was convinced that this was a good thing," he says.

But after he spent several hours at the retreat, Had understood why his son was so worried. "They were reducing these kids down. Kids were bawling. I can see why they didn't want to send kids out of the room by themselves. After being in this state, they had to be concerned that [the kids] might try to escape or do harm to themselves."

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.

Had had no problem with the physical activities -- it was the use of sensitive personal information to goad the students into overcoming their fear of lunging for that trapeze or falling backward into the arms of friends that bothered him. "What's outrageous is that a public school is bringing kids up there to play with their heads while two of the top administrators at the school -- Luke and Linda -- don't even know what's going on. They were never let in on the 'secret.' In fact, we mentors had no advance warning that this would be happening," he says. "They told the kids that when they got back to school, people would probably say they'd been brainwashed."

That's exactly what happened.

The students who didn't go on the retreat didn't understand the new words their friends were using; they'd never witnessed such a mass outpouring of emotion at their school, and they'd never seen their normally reserved principal so buoyant. Some students, who didn't want to use their names, describe what they saw as "an alien invasion." Others were simply "weirded out" by it.

"The kids didn't sound like themselves. They were crying, and no one understood why they were crying or why it moved them so much," says one student, who requested anonymity.

The student says things have changed dramatically since CYAR moved into P.S.1. "All of a sudden this year, there's a group of people at school that wasn't there before, and we don't know why they're there or what they're doing," she says. "The kids who went on the retreat said that this [the group] is their family. The rest of us felt left out. We had known these kids for years, and all of a sudden [the CYAR people] know them better than we do?"

Other students, who also asked that their names not be used, say the introduction of Steps Ahead has divided the school. The kids who went on the first retreat, they say, used their favored status with certain teachers and administrators to get away with whatever they wanted. If they didn't feel like being in class, they'd say they were having personal problems and needed to leave or visit the principal. It worked for a while. Eventually, though, several students voiced their disgust at the special treatment the Steps Ahead kids were receiving and the privileges stopped.

P.S.1 counselor Burrows admits that teachers made mistakes after the first retreat by coddling the Steps Ahead students, but she says they've made a concerted effort since then to be more supportive of troubled teens without disrupting other students. Still, students who are not part of Steps Ahead say they are regarded as second-class citizens.

"The mission of the school is to be involved in the community and do things as a group to make Denver better. We used to go to soup kitchens, clean the neighborhood, paint murals, do toy drives and take trips to different places in Denver," one student says. "But we haven't done any community-service activities this year. Now the school is just about getting to know your sense of self."

The student with whom Had Beatty was paired hated the program, he says, and dropped out of Steps Ahead. She did not return calls from Westword.

Luke Beatty and Reilly worry that parents don't know what their kids are getting involved in -- after all, even they didn't know what was going on until after the fact. But the consent form that parents are asked to sign before their children can enroll in Steps Ahead hints at the risks: "The Steps Ahead Program can be physically demanding and potentially dangerous. Some participants may find the Program physically, mentally and emotionally stressful. This may include experiencing disturbing or upsetting emotions and physical sensations during or after the Program.

"During the course, each day's activities will extend for many hours. There will be three meals a day. The amount of sleep in any given day may be limited to a few hours less than what you are used to," the consent form continues.

In addition, students are told in writing that any stories they share about physical or sexual abuse will be reported to social services. (Myers says there was one student whose testimony about sexual abuse was reported.)

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