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Five students stand together at the front of a bright, spacious classroom. The tables that serve as desks are pushed aside and the chairs arranged in rows to form an audience. Spencer Isensee, an outgoing, ponytailed eighteen-year-old junior at P.S. 1 Charter School, begins the group's end-of-quarter presentation. "For this class, we've been mainly looking at our government," he says to the assembled sixth- to twelfth-graders. "Our government is this weird thing that's focused on this system of checks and balances."
He's animated. He's gesturing. He's fired up about civics.
A teacher chides Isensee for swearing. He nods, but he can't stop himself.
"That's huge!" he says. "There's only been three women in the past, and we have the fourth one as a Latina woman? That's great progress. We have a black man as president and a Latina woman in the friggin' Supreme Court!"
It's not a valedictory speech, but it is evidence that students at Denver's longest-running charter school are excited about learning.
Founded in 1995, P.S. 1 serves 237 middle- or high-school students who have struggled elsewhere — academically, socially or both. One out of ten was pushed out of his or her old school, while one in seven dropped out. One out of every five kids at P.S. 1 has a history of repeated school suspensions, and one in three is involved with the courts. The academic challenges are just as daunting: 25 percent of students qualify for special education, and 75 percent are behind in reading and math.
"One hundred percent of our population comes because another school hasn't worked for them," says P.S. 1 principal Laura Laffoon.
But P.S. 1 hasn't worked, either, at least according to Denver Public Schools. In late November, the DPS board voted to shutter the school, where test scores have been dismal for years. The decision, which will take effect in the summer of 2011, was part of an effort to turn around low-performing schools; DPS is also closing other schools, including Skyland Community High School, another struggling charter serving at-risk kids. And it marks the first time DPS has rescinded a charter because of poor academic performance, a move experts say is important if the state wants a shot at winning millions of dollars in Obama-administration grants set aside for school reform.
The closures also come in the wake of a tumultuous school board election in November, in which candidates questioned how much attention the district should pay to its 24 charter schools at a time when traditional public schools, which serve approximately 90 percent of Denver students, are struggling too.
"If a district embraces charters, they have to be willing to close charters when they've been given a chance and have failed," says Alan Gottlieb, the vice president for policy and business engagement at Denver's Public Education and Business Coalition and the editor of Education News Colorado. DPS, he says, "is trying to get tougher."
The board granted P.S. 1 a one-year extension, however, which will allow the district time to solicit ideas for a school that could take its place, because, as Superintendent Tom Boasberg pointed out during a November 9 school board meeting, "they serve a group of students for whom we don't have a better option at this point."
The idea for P.S. 1 was hatched in 1993, the brainchild of progressive-education guru Rex Brown. At the time, Brown worked for the Denver think tank Education Commission of the States and had just written a nationally acclaimed book called Schools of Thought that called for education reforms to address students' lack of creative-thinking skills.
One night, Brown and architect David Tryba were discussing the revitalization of LoDo, and Tryba wondered aloud about putting a school inside the building that would house the Tattered Cover. He asked Brown to help him pitch the idea to the owners of the property, who loved it. They thought a school would encourage families with children to move downtown, where they would also work and shop.
At first, Brown wasn't sure what shape the school would take. But when new state legislation allowing for charter schools was passed that spring, he jumped on the opportunity. (The main difference between charters and traditional public schools is the amount of autonomy they have; for example, charter schools are exempted from rules governing the length of the school day, which students they admit and which teachers they hire. In return, they're expected to innovate — and ideally share what they learn with other schools.)
In 1994, Brown and his supporters formed a non-profit organization called Urban Learning Communities and presented a detailed — if lofty — proposal to DPS that envisioned P.S. 1 as a small "learning community" that would be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. year-round, where students would learn from teachers and vice versa. It called for a multi-racial, multi-lingual student body that would use the city as its campus, partnering with businesses on projects and helping revitalize Denver's urban core.
At the time, DPS was resistant to charters, which are still considered to be public schools and therefore funded by public dollars. District officials were worried that they would siphon cash from their already-tight budget and at first refused to fund them.