P.S. 1 didn't make the grade, but can anything replace Denver's longest-running charter school?
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.
"All you ever heard of Sonia Sotomayor?" he asks. "She's the newly, the first fuckin' Latina woman to be part of the Supreme Court justices."
Denver Public School
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 And it marks the first time DPS has rescinded a charter because of poor academic performance, a move experts say is important if the state wants a shot at winning millions of dollars in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.
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").
Although a DPS advisory committee recommended closing P.S. 1, the school board bucked the recommendation in a 4-3 vote and granted P.S. 1's charter renewal. But it also put P.S. 1 on probation and demanded that it improve its student performance.
Theresa Peña, who still serves on the school board, remembers it as a difficult decision. "None of us felt good about the academic environment at P.S. 1," says Peña, who voted to close the school. But there was nowhere else "for the students to go. You either lose those kids or keep it open and compromise their educational environment."
Conditions at the school improved slightly, and in 2008, that same advisory board recommended that the school be given another chance. But Aybar left the same year to take an education policy job in Governor Bill Ritter's office. (She didn't return e-mails or phone calls seeking comment.) And by the time P.S. 1 applied for another renewal, in late 2009, with more dismal test scores to show, it was out of second chances.
In early September, a team of DPS evaluators visited P.S. 1 in connection with its charter-renewal application. They found that while the students seemed happy, their academic performance was abysmal: Just 37 percent were proficient in reading, while only 7 percent were proficient in math, according to their scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program tests, or CSAPs — tests that all Colorado students in grades three through ten are required to take.
And although an independent analysis of P.S. 1's test scores commissioned by the school showed that students were doing better on the tests — even if they weren't passing them — and that students who had been at the school longer did better than those who had recently enrolled, the scores were still bad. And there was no doubt that they were worse than in 2003, when two-thirds of students scored proficient.
DPS evaluators also noted that the kids seemed uninterested in their schoolwork and that the building was "cluttered and dirty." Their final recommendation: Allow the school to stay open for one more school year, then close it in 2011.
A second evaluation, done by the state Department of Education in late October, echoes the first. It takes note of the "exemplary" relationships between students and teachers at P.S. 1: "A positive can-do attitude permeates the culture."
But, it also says, "there is a learning environment of low expectations of students at P.S. 1. The use of excuses as to why students cannot achieve must be eliminated. It's imperative that staff move beyond a focus on family circumstances, poverty, lack of skills and knowledge.... P.S. 1 may be the last hope for some of their students to have a chance at success in life. If a learning environment of high expectations is not present, some students will only continue down a very tragic life path."
Education policy expert Gottlieb agrees. "Test scores aren't everything," he says. "But there are a lot of times when parents and kids love schools that suck, and they don't always know best. If the reason kids like [a school] is because the teachers are nice to them and don't push them, that's not a good reason to stay at a school."
Principal Laffoon defends accusations that P.S. 1 has low expectations.
"Saying you're just going to pass a kid because you feel compassion for their situation and so you're going to give them a grade they don't deserve or give them credit where they don't deserve it — that's low expectations. I don't think we do that," says Laffoon, who was a teacher at P.S. 1 for ten years before becoming principal last year. "Their credit in class is tied to their mastering outcomes that are standards-based."
Still, at the November 9 board meeting, Superintendent Boasberg announced plans to "turn around" the district's three lowest-performing schools and its three lowest-performing charters. The turnaround plan for each school differed. For some, he recommended revamping their structure. For others, he suggested sharing space with high-performing charters, such as West Denver Prep, a middle school with a rigorous application process and an academic program that's produced high test scores and is hailed as a success story. For P.S. 1, it meant closure.
In crafting the plans, Boasberg says, it didn't matter to him whether low-performing schools were district schools or charters. "I think we've been very clear that we've got the same exact standards, the same rigorous standards, for all our schools, whether they're district-run schools or charter schools," he tells Westword. If a school is failing, Boasberg says, the district has to do something about it.
Some boardmembers thought P.S. 1 should have been closed immediately.
"This is just another example with DPS where we say, 'We're going to close it, we're going to close it...if you don't get better, we're going to close you,' and then we never do it," outgoing boardmember Michelle Moss said at the meeting. She noted that P.S. 1 serves high-risk kids, including scores of special-education students, but said she'd had enough. "I'm not sure they're educating special-ed kids. I'm not sure they're educating anybody. I mean, you look at what they're doing in terms of their performance; it's appalling. And it has been appalling since I've been on this board."
This type of reform has been embraced by the Obama administration and encouraged by its Race to the Top program, a competition among states for $4.35 billion in grant money. Colorado stands to win between $60 and $175 million if its application, which must be submitted by January 19, is accepted. States will be chosen based on factors such as the strength of their teachers and school leaders, and their strategies for improving struggling schools — a factor experts say is key.
"If you can't show the public and the U.S. Department of Education that you're serious about closing down underperforming charters, you're going to run into trouble with the community for closing down neighborhood schools (instead) — and you're going to run into trouble with the Department of Education," Gottlieb says.
This kind of reform was also at the center of the recent school board election, which pitted a slate of union-supported candidates — many of whom were more skeptical of charter schools — against so-called reformers, who were seen as being in favor of them.
Two union-backed candidates — Andrea Merida and Nate Easley Jr. — won on November 3, along with one reformer, Mary Seawell. On November 30, the outgoing board voted on the turnaround package hours before the new candidates were sworn in (with the exception of Merida, who had herself sworn in by a judge earlier that day so she could vote on the reforms). Some people were outraged at Merida's action, but others felt that the new boardmembers should have been given the chance to vote on the plans.
The seven-member board voted unanimously to shutter P.S. 1, despite the school's efforts to rally the troops and campaign against closure.
Peña said that this time around, the decision wasn't hard to make. "We've given them multiple opportunities and they just haven't figured it out," she says. "We can't keep making excuses for programs that are chronically failing children."
Spencer Isensee finishes his presentation about Sonia Sotomayor, which is dotted with several more curses and admonishing looks from his teacher.
Next up is Jeremy Sandoval, a seventeen-year-old who recounts the civics class's lessons on current events. "Something that I thought was extremely funny was that Barack Obama just won the Nobel Peace Prize," he says, "and the ironic thing about that is that he just also sent 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan."
Sandoval first enrolled in P.S. 1 three years ago. After his first year, though, his mom wanted him to go to a "normal" high school, so he transferred to Englewood High. But he hated it and skipped school 85 times that year. This year, he's back at P.S. 1. "It was a big change," he says of transferring to 850-student Englewood High.
"It's all huge and they don't know anyone's name," he says. "There's no atmosphere. You come here, and it's all love and everyone knows you."
That's the number-one reason students give for why they like P.S. 1, why they show up, why they don't want the school to close.
Tiffany Clymer, a petite seventeen-year-old junior with bleached-blond hair and dark eye shadow, used to go to Dora Moore middle school, where she says the teachers ignored her questions and heaped attention on the "smart people" instead.
"Here, the teachers are your friends," says Clymer, who has attention deficit disorder and trouble concentrating. And she gets good grades. Three years ago, she was an eighth-grader who read at a fourth-grade level. Now she reads at a twelfth-grade level.
Parents and grandparents like the school for many of the same reasons.
Yvonne Johnson has heard the district's explanation for closing P.S. 1, and she's read about the school's low test scores and lack of academic rigor. But to her, that's not the point. "I hate numbers, I hate numbers, I hate numbers," says Johnson, who is raising her three grandchildren — fifteen-year-old D'Von, fourteen-year-old D'Vonte and thirteen-year-old Tavier — and drives them to P.S. 1 every morning. "You're throwing kids away for numbers. They need to forget the numbers, forget the grades they're making. They need to realize other schools gave up on [these kids] and they're graduating from P.S. 1."
Laurie Eisenhart, a single mom whose seventh-grade son, Colton, has ADD, is also disappointed. "It's like I found this great place for him and now they're going to make him leave," she says. "Are you kidding me? Because of CSAP crap?"
Jen Derosby, who has taught at P.S. 1 for nine years, disagrees with the district's belief that teachers at P.S. 1 use students' circumstances as "excuses." She and other teachers say they believe in their students and think they can achieve but recognize that they may need extra help, extra attention, extra problem-solving to get there. "If we did care about these kids, we'd talk about how race and gender and socioeconomic status affect their learning," she says. "Does that mean they can't learn? Hell, no. But to ignore that, to be like, 'Little robots, learn, learn, learn!' is silly."
"It's sort of like they're supposed to walk into the halls of the school and they're just supposed to drop off their baggage and suddenly just be focused on their education," adds principal Laffoon. "That's doesn't happen."
DPS is currently working on writing guidelines for the kind of school it would like to take P.S. 1's place, but it's a tall order. "We are seeking to have a replacement school to meet [the students'] needs because there are many special-needs students at P.S. 1 and we recognize that," Boasberg says. If no one submits a proposal that meets DPS's guidelines, the district will create one. "I think, frankly, we've been a little passive about willing to go out and actively create a school like that, and we need to do it."
The district has encouraged P.S. 1 to submit a plan of its own through its request-for-proposals process. But the enthusiasm for doing so among the school's staff varies.
"How do you think about building the next school when you're still teaching in the first?" asks P.S. 1 English teacher Laura Inscho. "It would be like building the car while driving it and texting and paving the road."
"If we knew the plan was to do an RFP, we'd be engaging 110 percent," says math teacher Eric Noggle. "We can't commit to doing an RFP when there's so much uncertainty about next year, about our jobs, about our kids."
If there is no suitable replacement, some students say they'll enroll in one of the district's alternative schools, such as the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, a dropout retrieval school. Others may just go back to their neighborhood schools, where they weren't successful before and where their chances of graduation are slimmer. The district hopes to open more alternative campuses in 2011, including two Multiple Pathways Centers designed to provide both academics and social services. But there will be limited room; although P.S. 1 students can apply, there's no guarantee they'll get in.
Laffoon is among those who see an opportunity to reinvent P.S. 1. "I think [the district] is trying to create a situation that allows us to remake ourselves," she says. "I think that's their intention — to say you can't keep existing the way you've been existing because there are some things that just aren't going well, and here's this opportunity."
Urban Learning Communities, the Rex Brown-created nonprofit that still oversees P.S. 1 and manages its finances, is still undecided on what to do. Its all-volunteer board is fairly new; of the six directors, chairwoman Jennifer Kramer-Wine, an education-policy analyst by trade, is the longest-serving, having joined in 2005. But members have said they want to be part of the process no matter what happens.
One option the board has considered in the past is to become an alternative school. Alternative schools are not subject to sanctions based on test scores. (Denver currently has ten; five are charters and five are district schools.) The bar is high, though: According to Colorado state law, an alternative school must serve at least 95 percent at-risk kids or exclusively serve dropouts or students who have been expelled.
P.S. 1 doesn't currently meet those criteria. Although many of its students are dropouts and expelled students, not all of them are. And its at-risk population hovers around 70 percent, though some staff suspect that it's actually higher.
That puts P.S. 1 in a tricky spot.
As boardmember Amanda Brown says, the school is in "a kind of limbo area where you're serving a harder population but there's not a different way of looking at your school based on that."
The board is also looking into partnering with local and national school-support organizations, such as the Coalition for Essential Schools or Communities in Schools, which could help P.S. 1 identify and secure additional resources. "We're currently exploring some partnerships and reaching out in the community because we want to look at new ways of doing things if what we're doing isn't the right thing entirely," Brown says. "Is there someone else out there who has a good idea?"
"That's one of the biggest lessons for us — that we certainly can't do this alone," Kramer-Wine adds. But she and others don't want the conversations and partnerships to end with P.S. 1. Instead, she says, they want to "really raise this to a broader conversation than one school trying to survive. It's, really, how does the district serve the students we have in our building?"
So far, no one has been able to answer that question.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.