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But P.S. 1 had well-connected backers, such as then-governor Roy Romer, and after appealing to the state board of education, the school was granted one of Denver's first charters — and guaranteed the funding to run it — in 1995.
It opened that fall with 64 students in borrowed space on the sixth floor of the central Denver Public Library (the plan to open in LoDo had fallen apart). A few weeks later, P.S. 1 moved to a musty VFW post near Bannock Street and Speer Boulevard, where it was housed for a few years before moving to its current location, in the brick Bank Note building at 1062 Delaware Street.
Brown quit his policy job to serve as its first principal, and from the beginning, he says, "we wanted to break the mold. When we designed the school, we said let's not do anything the way it's currently being done in traditional schools unless we discover that's the best way to do it." Instead of tests, there were portfolios. Instead of lectures, there were projects. In the first five years, students worked with the mayor and city council to build Denver's first skateboard park and helped the Colorado Historical Society archive media coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing trial. They wrote haiku about urban life that were sandblasted into new sidewalks on Acoma Street and helped build low-income housing in Globeville. They even organized a trip to Honduras in the wake of 1998's Hurricane Mitch to do the same for hurricane victims. Each student had a personal learning plan and an advisor to help monitor his or her progress.
In 1999, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley toured P.S. 1 and hailed it as a model for other charters. Newspaper editorials praised it, too.
But there were problems. Finances were tight, and the dream of a year-round school for all ages fell short. The staff struggled with creating a cohesive curriculum and assessing student projects. "The tricky part for us was translating what our kids were learning into terms that the school district could understand," Brown says.
One of the biggest mistakes he made was growing the school too fast — P.S. 1 doubled in size from year one to year two, and doubled again by year four — and Brown admits that he underestimated the kinds of problems that students would show up with.
"He was trying to create a cutting-edge national model of a secondary school that would serve kids in an urban setting," says education policy expert Alex Medler, vice president of the Colorado Children's Campaign. "But the kids that were attracted to the school were not the population he was anticipating." They were tougher.
Still, P.S. 1's first renewal was a breeze. In November 1999, the school presented DPS with a 29-page narrative of all that P.S. 1 had accomplished and a thick binder of financial documents, student work and newspaper clippings to back it up. But P.S. 1 wasn't shy about its struggles, either. "Although test scores have been higher than the district averages," school leaders wrote, "the scores mask a bi-polar population of inner-city kids who are ready for self-directed learning and students who are not."
The school was granted a renewal and others after that, but it was never as easy as the first time. Over time, P.S. 1's population of at-risk students grew, and the school's focus shifted away from the multi-age, multi-disciplinary projects that had wowed the school board and back toward building students' basic skills. Test scores declined, and school board members became more and more hesitant to grant charter renewals. But, former and current members say, P.S. 1 kept asking for one more chance and the board kept saying yes.
"Individual boardmembers visited the school and saw firsthand that there was a unique student population," says former boardmember Elaine Berman, who served from 1997 to 2005 and was in favor of renewing P.S. 1's charter in 2005. That time around, the renewal came with caveats: P.S. 1 had to replace all staff members who were relevant to the school's problems and restructure its organization. It did so, hiring a new principal, who turned out to be Liz Aybar, a former P.S. 1 teacher.
The next time P.S. 1 applied for a renewal, in 2007, boardmembers were skeptical. The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act had put more emphasis on test scores nationwide, and DPS had responded by rolling out a new formula that allowed it to easily compare school performance. P.S. 1's had worsened to what district officials called "dismal."
The school had other problems, too. Staff turnover was huge. Aybar was the school's fourth principal in ten years. Brown had left in 2000 because of health reasons, and P.S. 1 had gone through two more principals in the interim. One declined to comment; the other, Steve Myers, couldn't be reached for this story. Myers left P.S. 1 for a school in Massachusetts, but he resigned after a student accused him of making inappropriate comments. When that story broke, teachers here revealed that they had reported what they believed to be inappropriate conduct by Myers as well. ("Principal Principles," February 7, 2002). Other founding staff members had also left, some because of the introduction of a self-help program at P.S. 1 that had connections to the Landmark Forum, a controversial California organization that some people have compared to a religious organization or even a cult ("The First Step, May 4, 2000").