The First Step
The First Step
P.S.1's changing course leaves some people wondering what direction the charter school is taking.
By Julie Jargon
published: May 04, 2000
Tuesday, September 7, 1999. It's the beginning of a new school year, and it's going to be a big one for P.S.1, Denver's oldest charter school. As P.S.1 enters its sixth year of existence, its charter will be up for renewal by the Denver Board of Education, and teachers and administrators would like to ensure its continued success.
Charting a course: P.S.1 charter school was designed to be an urban learning environment for its 240 students.
Taking a stand: Ariana Wright, Aron Topping and Sol Johnson-Mey (left to right) enjoyed the Steps Ahead program.
P.S.1's founders hatched the idea for a school for fifth- through twelfth-graders in 1993, when charter schools were still a new phenomenon in public education. It had a rocky start, but because of its innovative class projects, ethnic diversity and service to the central Denver community -- students helped the Colorado Historical Society archive the media coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing trial, worked with the Denver City Council to design a skateboard park, built homes for hurricane victims in Honduras and houses for low-income families in Denver's Globeville neighborhood -- P.S.1 has been lauded as an example for other charter schools to follow.
When the Board of Education considers whether to give it the go-ahead for another five years, P.S.1's founders must prove that the school has lived up to its charter and present their plans for the future.
Wednesday, November 17, 1999. Twenty-eight P.S.1 students between the grades of seven and twelve are on their way to the Covenant Heights Conference Center near Estes Park, where, they've been told, they'll have "an intense experience." The five-day mountain retreat is the kickoff of the yearlong Steps Ahead program, offered by a nonprofit organization called Colorado Youth at Risk. The point of the retreat is to get kids excited about becoming better students and better people.
But the program doesn't end there. Adult mentors will be paired with students, and the whole group will meet monthly throughout the rest of the year to ensure that the kids stick to their goals. The plan is to hold two retreats -- one in the fall and one in the spring -- with another group of kids joining Steps Ahead the second time around.
The students who agreed to go on the retreat were chosen by teachers and CYAR staff members because they are considered to be "at risk" of dropping out of school or engaging in risky behavior, such as using drugs and alcohol and having sex. In the days before the retreat, students had to fill out applications that asked the following questions: Have you ever been pregnant?
Have you fathered any children?
Do you consider yourself gay, lesbian or bisexual?
Do you or any of your family have a drug or alcohol problem?
Have you ever had thoughts of killing yourself?
In addition, the kids were interviewed by a school counselor before they were approved for the trip. The counselor asked them to describe their relationships with their parents, stepparents, grandparents and siblings and to explain what they wanted to get out of the personal-growth program.
Once they arrive at the conference center, students spend the rest of the day familiarizing themselves with their new surroundings and choosing their bunks.
Thursday, November 18, 1999. The students wake up early and begin the day with a mile-long run. Most of them are out of shape and find the exercise grueling. They're told to give it their all or to not bother trying. Most finish the run, even though they curse and pant the whole way.
After breakfast, they spend most of the day and night in the "course room" -- the main conference hall in the lodge -- where they're asked to share whatever is troubling them. But first, they meditate and hum. A set of director's chairs is positioned in front of the room facing the area where the students sit. The man leading the session, Derek Canty, a youth trainer from Seattle whom CYAR asked to join the retreat, sits in front. The other adults -- including five who are associated with CYAR, three teachers, P.S.1's principal and a few mentors -- sit in the back.
Students aren't allowed to leave the room without an adult escort, and they can go to the bathroom only during breaks. They're supposed to give one another their full attention. When a student is talking, he sits in front of the group, next to Derek. The other students sit on the edges of their seats and listen. Some tell tales of sexual abuse, drug use and low self-esteem. Others talk about bad relationships with parents, siblings and friends. Most of them cry.
But it's okay to cry -- that's the first sign of a breakthrough, a word that CYAR staff members begin to use repeatedly. Once the tears stop and the sense of peace that follows a good, long sob has washed over them, the kids have begun the transformation that leads to self-awareness.
"People told things they've never told anyone ever before," says Ariana Wright, a fourteen-year-old eighth-grader at P.S.1 who shared some painful memories. "When I went up there, they spent an hour on me. They had told us to separate fact from opinion. One of the beliefs I had was that I was dirty, but I learned that that was an opinion. By the end of the night I was able to look in the mirror and say, 'I'm Ariana Wright: beautiful, courageous, powerful and not to blame.' I was in tears when I was done sharing, but I was able to sleep peacefully that night. I felt really good after I got all that out, like when you're sick and you throw up and then you feel better."
The youth trainers who lead the course stress the importance of leaving the past where it belongs.
The rest of the retreat is divided between more sharing sessions and outdoor activities. One activity has kids climbing forty feet up a tree and standing on a tiny perch. The students, who are secured by a harness, have to jump out and reach for a trapeze that's dangling about ten feet in front of them. Some of them don't want to do it. They look down at the ground below and get queasy. Their knees shake. Some cry, they're so scared. Others laugh nervously.
The adults shout out encouragement, using personal information learned during the sharing sessions. They says things like: Let go of your past. If you're ever going to talk to your father again, take the first step now. Leave your troubles behind you on that perch. Reach out -- your new future is waiting for you.
"It took me 45 minutes to jump. I was scared to death," Ariana says. "We had to let go of something up there, and we had to think of something we wanted out of our life. I left my limiting beliefs up there. When I was let down, everyone hugged me."
Another activity has students swinging across a ravine on a pulley; in still another, they climb a wall and then fall backward, trusting their classmates to catch them. The adults again use personal information that the kids disclosed in the group sessions or on their application to encourage them to face their fears and take a symbolic leap into the unknown.
Back in the course room, the trainers go over the principles they expect students to adhere to: commitment, responsibility, integrity, respect, and being part of a team. The students admit to what holds them back from reaching their full potential and describe the "masks" -- another CYAR term -- behind which they hide. One kid says he acts like the class clown but that deep down he has a serious side; another says he plays dumb because he grew up being told that he was a mistake; one girl says she acts like a dumb blonde to avoid confrontation. For the remainder of the retreat, the students are reminded of their masks every time they slip into their old routines.
Before they leave, the kids decide what "stands" they plan to take. Some take a stand against smoking; some vow not to use hard drugs; others promise to attend school regularly. By the end of the five days, the students, teachers and CYAR staff members are a tight-knit group.
Monday, November 22, 1999. Every Monday morning, P.S.1 holds a meeting called "convocation," where news items such as birthdays and students of the month are announced. Convocation is held in an open central area. The school, which is located in the old Rocky Mountain Bank Note Building, at 1062 Delaware Street, is loft-like, with brick walls and exposed ceiling pipes. All 240 students attend the convocation gatherings, which typically last 45 minutes. But on this particular Monday, the meeting lasts an hour and a half.
The students who are part of the Steps Ahead program stand in front of the room hugging and talking about the breakthroughs they've had, the masks they've shed and the stands they've chosen to take. Sometimes they're on "AM" and other times they're on "FM," they tell the others, using more CYAR lingo. They post large sticky notes on the walls bearing their new mottos: "I believe in myself" and "I can be whatever I want."
They talk about how much the retreat has changed them and how the group is their family. The adults who went on the retreat cheer the students as they run around the room with all the pent-up energy of caged animals, jumping on the carpeted blocks that serve as a stage. They can't convey just how much this program has meant to them. They're so jubilant, they're in tears. These kids are on fire.
The display left Linda Reilly, one of the school's founders, with a hollow feeling in her stomach. "By using language that's never been used before, it suggested that 'we know something you don't, and if you want to see the light, you should join, too,'" she recalls. "There was a cult-like feel to it. I thought, 'This isn't my school anymore.'"
Reilly had put in seventy-hour weeks for a couple of years to get the school started, but that night, she felt like quitting. When she told two fellow members of the school's board of directors that she was thinking of leaving, they asked why. So she described what she had witnessed earlier that day. They told her that the kids' words and actions sounded strikingly similar to something they had recently attended: the "graduation" of a P.S.1 teacher who had just completed the Landmark Forum.
Reilly had never heard of the Landmark Forum, so she turned on her computer and did some Internet research. What she found disturbed her. The accounts she read on Web sites and in newspaper articles of what people experienced in the Forum -- an introductory three-day, $350 self-help course that a company called the Landmark Education Corporation offers in more than one hundred cities around the world -- matched what she heard had happened at the Steps Ahead "launch course" and what she'd seen afterward.
The Forum was described as a room in which course leaders sit in director's chairs at the front while, one by one, the participants share personal details about their lives. The participants talk about their "acts" rather than their "masks," but the message was the same: To be a better person, they had to stop hiding who they really were. The participants were discouraged from going to the bathroom while the group was sharing, Reilly learned, and by the end of the session, they were to have achieved a "breakthrough" in which they finally "got it."
Reilly discovered that the Landmark Education Corporation grew out of a controversial self-help program called Erhard Seminars Training, better known as est. The program was founded by a man named Werner Erhard. Born in 1936 as John Paul "Jack" Rosenberg, he left his wife and four children in Philadelphia in 1960 and forged a new identity. He started by assuming a new name, which he borrowed from German physicist Werner Heisenberg and former German economics minister Ludwig Erhard. After working as a car salesman in St. Louis, a door-to-door book salesman in the Pacific Northwest and a senior vice president at a publishing company, Erhard wound up in San Francisco, where he decided to go into business for himself by peddling the intangible: self-awareness. In 1971, Erhard Seminars Training was born.
Erhard sold the idea of self-empowerment by holding a series of seminars in which he encouraged people to put their pasts behind them -- as he had -- and take control of their lives. He taught his grateful clients to train others across the country and the continent. By the late 1970s, Erhard was a rich man. But the methods he employed to help people achieve their "transformative experience" -- keeping people in rooms where each person underwent an emotional bloodletting while trainers yelled and swore at them until they broke down in tears -- eventually drew harsh criticism from psychiatrists and est "graduates" who claimed that the seminars had left some est graduates psychologically damaged.
Although many participants reported real benefits from est, others compared the pre-Landmark est to a cult, since it shared some of the characteristics of traditional cults -- a single, charismatic leader, its own language, and graduates who were highly encouraged to bring in more clients.
The American Family Foundation, which professes to be "the leading professional organization concerned about cults and psychological manipulation," features est on its list of "large group awareness trainings" to be aware of. The AFF Web site lists several characteristics of a cult, which include: control of the environment, preoccupation with bringing in new members, preoccupation with making money, deception in recruitment and/or fundraising, using language that people outside the group do not use, and using mind-numbing techniques such as meditation and chanting. It acknowledges, however, that est no longer exists.
In 1985, Erhard dropped the name "est," and his company, Werner Erhard & Associates, dubbed its introductory course "The Forum." Despite the bad publicity, Erhard enjoyed continued success. In 1991, however, Erhard suffered more publicity problems. One of his daughters accused him on 60 Minutes of sexually abusing her and her sister (she later recanted amid claims that she had been encouraged to exaggerate), and he got into a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service (Erhard eventually won a $200,000 settlement). Erhard left the United States and has been living in self-imposed exile in points unknown ever since.
But his legacy lives on.
Before he left the country, Erhard sold his company and the "technology" that went with it to his employees. Landmark Education was incorporated in San Francisco in 1991 and has since established 58 offices all over the globe, including one in Englewood ("It Happens," April 17, 1996).
Although Landmark's Web page claims that Erhard has no role in the company, it also states that "Landmark Education considers him a friend."
Landmark officials say Erhard has been repeatedly misrepresented in the press, and they insist that their organization is not a cult; they have a ready supply of letters from experts to back them up. In one of these, a November 30, 1999, report on the Forum, Raymond Fowler, the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, wrote: "In my opinion, The Landmark Forum is not a cult or anything like a cult, and I do not see how any reasonable, responsible person could say that it is."
Although Fowler is on a leave of absence and couldn't be reached by Westword, his assistant, Barbara Peet, confirms that Fowler did, in fact, write the report.
In addition to Fowler's report, Landmark Education attorney Art Schreiber provided a litany of other testimonials from people, including a cult expert, an Episcopal bishop in Massachusetts, six law enforcement officers in California, several psychiatrists and psychologists, other clergy members and a former FBI agent in Texas. In 1998, the Harvard Business School even published a favorable case study of Landmark, titled "Landmark Education Corporation: Selling a Paradigm Shift," which covered the company's history, "technology," business model for the future and other factors.
Schreiber warned Westword that "in the event your article does not include relevant portions of the opinion letters of experts that Landmark and The Landmark Forum are not a cult and does not include the fact that the allegations against Mr. Erhard have been retracted, Landmark will pursue appropriate legal action to redress the damage caused by publication of the article." Landmark Education has a history of using its legal staff to try to attack negative press reports, and several publications, including Self and Redbook magazines, have run retractions after having referred to Landmark as a cult.
The controversy hasn't affected the company's popularity, however. In 1998 it reported $54 million in revenues, according to Schreiber, and now has a series of self-awareness seminars -- The Forum; The Landmark Forum in Action Seminar, a ten-evening class in which participants focus on their "personal commitments, relationships, projects and goals"; The Landmark Advanced Course, a four-day workshop where participants are given "the tools for creating a future that is informed by the past but not limited or restricted by it"; and The Landmark Self-Expression and Leadership Program, which prepares participants to go on to train other people.
It all sounded like a bunch of psychobabble to Linda Reilly. She figured that if adults, who willingly and knowingly sign up for Landmark seminars, want to attend, that was their prerogative. But should kids -- particularly at-risk kids -- be participating in a similar-seeming program?
She posed that question to teachers, administrators and boardmembers, as well as to Rex Brown, P.S.1's executive director, and Steve Myers, the new principal who'd come to P.S.1 in the fall. When it became clear that the majority of her colleagues supported the Steps Ahead program, she decided she could no longer remain at the school, where she had done everything from clean toilets and teach classes to manage the school's finances.
Colorado Youth at Risk, as it turns out, was inspired by the Breakthrough Foundation, a nonprofit organization that originally grew out of est. The Foundation's primary program was called Youth at Risk (there are now twelve other YAR organizations worldwide), in which troubled teens attend ten-day retreats and meet with mentors.
Glenna Norvelle was a marketing director for Fox Sports almost a decade ago when she was introduced to a teenage girl who had participated in a Youth at Risk program in another city. Norvelle's boyfriend, Michael Donahue (now her husband), worked at a Denver law firm that was holding a golf tournament to raise money to help the girl establish a Youth at Risk program in Denver. Donahue took Norvelle to the tournament, where she watched a videotape produced by Chicago Youth at Risk. She was impressed, and decided to volunteer at a ten-day retreat sponsored by the Youth at Risk program in Oakland, California, in 1992.
"What attracted me was that I saw both young people and adults from all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds do things they didn't think they could do," Norvelle says, referring to the outdoor ropes activities like the ones that P.S.1 students did. "I had been a Big Sister before, but this looked like a more comprehensive program; it was about creating a community instead of adults just doing things for kids."
(There is no formal association for Youth at Risk nationwide, so the programs vary from city to city. But they all conduct launch courses, they all have mentoring and follow-through sessions, and they all center around the themes of building respect and integrity.)
Norvelle eventually teamed up with a friend who had experience in the nonprofit sector and one who had worked for Phoenix Youth at Risk, and they began to raise money. Colorado Youth at Risk was incorporated in 1993 and for the past three years has offered Steps Ahead to students at East High School -- the only Denver public school other than P.S.1 to offer the program.
Wes Ashley, dean of students at East High, says that he's never heard any complaints about Steps Ahead in his school and that he's never heard of Landmark Education. "Because I'm in charge of discipline, I refer kids to the program, and that's the extent of my involvement," he says. "But I know it's been successful. A lot of kids have turned their lives around; we would have lost a lot of these kids had [Colorado Youth at Risk] not stepped in."
CYAR also offers Touchstone at East High, a leadership program for students who have completed Steps Ahead; the kids in Touchstone work with a coach on quarterly projects that revolve around community service and relationship-building.
Although Norvelle, who went on the retreat with her husband, and P.S.1's Brown and Myers insist that Steps Ahead is not a kiddie version of the Landmark Forum, Youth at Risk, via its affiliation with the Breakthrough Foundation, does have roots in Landmark.
In the January 9, 1989, issue of Crain's Chicago Business, Art Schreiber, then chief operating officer of Werner Erhard & Associates, wrote a letter to the editor clarifying an earlier article about the company.
"With respect to the Chicago Youth at Risk, several years ago, Mr. Erhard sold the rights to a program he had developed for troubled teens to an international non-profit organization called the Breakthrough Foundation," Schreiber wrote. "The Breakthrough Foundation works with youths who are juvenile delinquents or who are headed in that direction. Over the years, Mr. Erhard has supported the Breakthrough Foundation by informing participants in courses offered by Werner Erhard & Associates of the foundation's work."
Many people who are involved in Youth at Risk are aware of the connection, and some have been a part of Landmark themselves. In a February 25 memo that CYAR mentor Clay Carson sent to fellow mentors, he wrote, "As some of you know, the philosophy of Colorado Youth at Risk is based in a conversation that originated with a company called Landmark Education (Basically -- the stuff that we all learned, and that the kids were taught up in the mountains). All of the program leaders have been through this work and been part of the conversation (as have some of the mentors).
"For everyone involved with CYAR, I am putting together an introduction to Landmark next Thursday. It will probably last from 6:00 to 9:00 or 9:30 and will be at the main space at P.S.1. It is free, so all you need to bring is yourselves and anyone else you think might benefit from the material."
Norvelle responded with an e-mail that same day: "While it is true that a few staff and other mentors have participated in a Landmark program, they are two very separate organizations with different purposes and philosophies...There are conversations within the Landmark program that have inspired some of the conversations within CYAR, but even these were modified to fit our purpose and the unique needs of our clientele -- at-risk youth."
Landmark officials claim to know nothing about Colorado Youth at Risk. In fact, Landmark has its own seminars for kids; in June, the company is holding the Landmark Forum for Young People in Denver.
But Norvelle admits that both she and her husband have attended Landmark training and that her husband, who directed the two P.S.1 Steps Ahead launch courses, used to be a volunteer Landmark Education seminar leader. However, she says, neither of them has attended anything Landmark-related for three years.
Luke Shamala, CYAR's program director, has. Shamala, who taught high school in his native Kenya before moving to the United States eight years ago, attended the Forum in December. An Atlanta Youth at Risk volunteer, Shamala moved to Denver in 1995 to study at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology. He also took a job with Youthtrack, an organization that works with kids who've had brushes with the law. After working there for four years, he answered an ad for the CYAR job.
Shamala wanted to go to the Forum after attending the first Steps Ahead retreat. "I thought the [Steps Ahead] launch course was a powerful experience. I was curious about experiencing that myself, and Glenna [Norvelle] said that if I wanted to develop leadership skills, Landmark Education might be a good avenue for me. So I called Landmark and asked about their program, and it seemed to be something good in terms of personal growth and leadership. I took the initiative to call Landmark myself; it was not anything that was imposed on me, and I'd do it again if I had the chance," he says. Shamala paid half the course fee, and CYAR paid the rest.
"I was intrigued by the notion that you can't move ahead if you haven't forgiven your past," he says. "For me, it was quite a powerful experience, but it was very different from what goes on in Colorado Youth at Risk. The two programs are similar to the extent that the experiences are transformative, but they are structured differently and they have a different curriculum."
Shamala also teaches an elective course at P.S.1 called "Who Am I?" Since he started the class last fall, 37 students -- including kids who are not in Steps Ahead -- have taken it. In the class, which he says the students named themselves, "we do self-expression through poetry, we have a martial artist come in twice a week, and we watch movies that kids can derive lessons from. The kids also use pictures or music to express their life stories."
While Norvelle acknowledges that about 25 percent of the Steps Ahead program is derived from Landmark, she says it also borrows from other personal-growth philosophies, including those advanced by educational theorist Carl Rogers and Virginia Satir, a renowned family therapist whose communication exercises are used. At the retreat, kids also play several team-building and self-esteem-enhancing games that P.S.1 principal Myers invented.
Norvelle says CYAR distanced itself from the Breakthrough Foundation because that organization did not allow for change. "We didn't want to be limited to a concrete model. We wanted the flexibility to bring in different approaches and disciplines, so we started relying less and less on the Breakthrough Foundation," she says, adding that the organization dissolved a few years ago. "Plus, it was very expensive, because we had to use their youth trainers."
CYAR, which currently has two full-time employees, Norvelle and Shamala, and several volunteer mentors, operated for several years out of an office at 899 Logan Street, but the rent was increasing and Norvelle didn't like the office space. So when a member of CYAR's board of directors attended a meeting of the Golden Triangle Neighborhood Association two years ago and heard Rex Brown mention that he wanted to rent school space to a community group, Norvelle jumped at the opportunity. CYAR moved into the school in October 1998 but didn't establish the P.S.1 Steps Ahead program until the following fall. (The organization pays $292.50 in rent to the school each month.)
"We realized we might have a program that they'd be interested in, and they were. I'm thrilled with the partnership, because when we're right there and can go in and talk to staff, it makes a tremendous difference," says Norvelle, who plans to evaluate P.S.1's Steps Ahead program upon its one-year anniversary this fall.
She'll look at what changes, if any, have taken place in test scores, attendance and tardiness among Steps Ahead students. "If, after the evaluation, we find that it was successful, I'd like to see it expand. It's very impactful when you can work with small schools. Any relationships we can develop with alternative or charter schools would be beneficial."
Last May, Norvelle hired a researcher to evaluate Steps Ahead at East High. The results showed that school absences among Steps Ahead students dropped by 28 percent while grade point averages increased by 39 percent. Kids also fought and smoked less after completing the program, according to the evaluation.
CYAR's biggest fundraiser is a celebrity golf tournament held every August that raises between $75,000 and $100,000. Donations from individuals and from foundations and corporations, including the Anschutz Family Foundation, the Schlessman Family Foundation, Fox Sports Net and Ascent Entertainment, bring in an additional $60,000 to $75,000 a year. A dinner dance held every February raises about $20,000. CYAR also applied in conjunction with P.S.1 for a $50,000 state Youth Crime Prevention and Intervention grant and a $20,000 grant from the Donner Foundation to get the P.S.1 Steps Ahead program established. CYAR now has an annual budget of $240,000.
P.S.1's ties to Landmark don't end with CYAR and the Breakthrough Foundation. The new principal, Steve Myers, was involved with est in the 1970s.
Myers founded the Traveling School in Santa Cruz, California, in 1972, to give kids who felt they didn't belong in traditional public schools a chance to learn about themselves and at the same time see the world, traveling to places as close as Oregon and as far away as Pakistan.
Prior to that, Myers told his P.S.1 colleagues at a staff retreat, he'd taught in a small California town, where he'd been criticized for his involvement with est. ("We figured it was just some '70s thing," Reilly says).
Myers wouldn't comment on his past to Westword except to say that there was a group of fundamentalist Christians who were fearful of est. "They equated anything in the humanistic education movement with the Antichrist," he says. "They said the devil had come to town and was brainwashing children. When I went to est 24 years ago, it was a tremendously valuable experience. It gave me a perspective that made me a better teacher and a better person. I learned that when I take risks, I empower myself; when I protect myself, I weaken myself."
While he ran the Traveling School, Myers brought students to Colorado; he says he always longed to return to the state. So when he saw an ad in Education Week for the job of principal at P.S.1, he applied. And he didn't wait long before recommending that teachers attend the Landmark Forum.
Annie Huggins, P.S.1's special-education director, says that when Myers suggested during her November performance review that she attend the Forum, it sounded more like a directive than a recommendation.
"I hadn't been very happy at work, and when I went into his office, I was very scared and very nervous," she says. "Steve told me that he thought I was a talented person but that things from my past were holding me back and that until I worked on them, I wouldn't be able to use my talents well. Steve said he wanted to make sure I didn't feel pressured, but what I said at the time was, 'You're my boss and we're talking about my job, and I feel I'm at a critical point in my employment, so I'm taking what you say, as my boss, seriously.'"
And so she went to the Forum. "It's the same kind of thing as the Steps Ahead launch course," says Huggins, who attended the second Steps Ahead retreat at the Mount Evans Outdoor Education Center in March. "You go to the front of the room and people tell their stories, and you get encouraged to call people you've had bad relationships with in the past. I felt like I needed to have bad relationships because everyone else was talking about their bad relationships. If you don't, they're like, 'You must have some troubles with your parents.' Well, I don't have trouble with my parents.
"I was really guarded when I was there because I'd heard of est, and I felt I was there because of my job, not for myself. My sister had done est, and my family had really ridiculed her for it, and she eventually ridiculed herself for it, so it had a bad ring for me. But I tried hard to get something out of it. People were bawling around me and having these huge emotional outbreaks, and I'm like, 'Jeez, I'm fine.'
"There's this one exercise in which you pretend you're afraid of everyone and then you picture that everyone's afraid of you," she continues. "That was the crux -- that you're the most dangerous person in the world and you create your own fears."
On the last day of the Forum, Huggins recalls, the trainer told the group: "Everything you've done before is preparation for this." He then wrote on the chalkboard: "Life, your life, is meaningless and empty and it's meaningless and empty that it's meaningless and empty." She was amazed that people had paid money to "get" that.
"I think it's dehumanizing, and it gives you license to think your actions aren't meaningful," says Huggins, who paid almost half the course fee while P.S.1 covered the rest. "I just don't think it's right for a public school to be sending teachers to Landmark. Maybe it would be okay if teachers had the same opportunity to go on Outward Bound or to some other professional development program, but I wasn't given any other option."
Huggins has since turned in her resignation; she'll leave P.S.1 at the end of the school year.
But Jennifer Ruskey, another teacher to whom Myers suggested the Forum, liked it so much that she's still involved with Landmark. "I went to Steve at the beginning of the year because I was frustrated with a lot of things, and he said that it was something he did that was valuable. I was ready for something clear and helpful, and, oh, man, it's been the most helpful thing. I got a sense of not having to hold on to old grudges and old pain and to be really present with what's happening in the moment. It's been an unbelievable relief," Ruskey says.
Elizabeth Burrows, the school's counselor, also went to the Forum. When she told CYAR's Norvelle that she wanted to mentor a Steps Ahead student, Norvelle suggested that Landmark could help her be a better mentor. Burrows says she didn't get much out of the Forum that she didn't already know and that she didn't like the pressure they put on her to bring in more people. Although she saw a lot of similarities between the Forum and the Steps Ahead launch course, she says the two aren't synonymous; only the good aspects of Landmark -- "the emphasis on your potentiality, what's limiting you and how the past affects the present" -- are used in the program, she says.
Burrows, who has a master's degree in clinical sociology, was the one who interviewed the kids before they joined Steps Ahead, and she attended the retreats as a therapist. In her professional opinion, she says, the program is perfectly legitimate.
Myers says the Forum fits in with the school's mission. "We teach our students to be self-aware because we believe they can learn more if they're self-aware, so the same applies to teachers: They can teach better if they're self-aware."
Executive director Brown, who says he's never attended a Landmark seminar and didn't have time to go on either Steps Ahead retreat, agrees. "The question was, should teachers go to something like this? Our answer was unequivocally yes. Schools send teachers to diversity training. Well, our school is a relationship- oriented school," he explains.
Myers and Brown have no qualms about helping teachers pay for the Forum, either. The approximately $600 they spent to send three employees to the seminars came from a Rose Community Foundation grant for professional development. While P.S.1's grant proposal didn't specify that some of the funds would be spent on Landmark, it did say that P.S.1 aims to help teachers by "embedding transformative and innovative teaching in a 'learning community' framework of unconventional approaches."
The connections to Landmark -- past or present -- trouble Linda Reilly and some parents and students who asked to remain anonymous. They're worried that all P.S.1 students will eventually become part of Steps Ahead; another 25 kids attended the second retreat at the end of March, and if the program continues next year, even more students will be "recruited" for it, they say.
After she realized that she was among only a handful of people who had concerns about Steps Ahead, Reilly began to understand that the school was heading in a different direction -- one she couldn't support.
"Steve Myers has a much different mission and focus in mind; he has a different opinion of what community is and a much different way to get there; the city as a campus is not his thing," she says. "I knew when he came here that he'd bring some changes, and I knew I needed to let him make those changes."
That's something that Brown understands. "The core value of P.S.1 from the very beginning has been to grow and change and learn," he says. "It's not unusual for a charter school to evolve, and it's not unusual for people who were involved in the beginning to no longer feel in control. Although the school has grown and changed, the values haven't. I'm the primary architect of the school; I should know. Is it a little dangerous? Is it a little risky? Yeah, but we're trying to help kids, and to do that, we have to take risks."
Brown was working for the Education Commission of the United States when he got the idea for P.S.1. In 1991, he and his wife bought an old factory on the outskirts of LoDo when the area was still dominated by abandoned warehouses. A couple of years into his renovation project, Brown was discussing downtown revitalization plans with Denver architect David Tryba late into the night. Together they came up with the idea of opening an urban learning center.
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."
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."
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.)
Renelle Anderson-Wright knew exactly what to expect before giving her daughter, Ariana, permission to enroll in Steps Ahead. Ariana's father attended a meeting at the school before the launch course, and although Renelle was unable to go to that, she visited the school to learn about the program. "There is no excuse for parents not to know what the program is about," she says. "I can see why it's controversial, though. Some parents may not be comfortable with their kids doing a tell-all, where they relive family issues and bring their skeletons out of the closet. It's definitely not for everyone, that's for sure. But we're an open family, and I think it's a lot healthier for kids to talk about things than to end up in therapy at age forty because they can't deal with their past."
And although three students dropped out of Steps Ahead, others say the program has turned their lives around.
"Everything we did up there was completely voluntary," says Sol Johnson-Mey, who attended the March retreat. "I wanted to learn more about who I am; it was an opportunity to get my own mind working for myself. They taught us how to show our real selves. Most people put on different masks to hide what they're feeling. We learned how to take those down. I feel more dedicated now. I used to want to skip school, but now I like being here. People are taking our enthusiasm about ourselves and saying that we're brainwashed because they're not used to seeing people so enthusiastic."
Aron Topping had heard good and bad things after the first retreat, so he decided to go on the second one to see for himself. "It's definitely worth the five days," he says. "They take the clouds from your eyes so you can see clearly."
And Chicobey Fischer says he learned about setting goals and taking responsibility. "Before we went on the trip, we had a pre-course meeting where they told us we'd be stepping out of our comfort zones and emptying our cups. We were told what to expect right from the beginning. I don't understand what's the problem," he says.
Reilly is most bothered by the fact that the school's board of directors didn't inform the Denver Board of Education about the controversy when its charter was up for renewal.
"I was in charge of the charter renewal. We had to prove what we'd done the first five years while planning for the next five years. I said that I can't be the one going through negotiations with the district because I don't know where the school is going. Anyone will tell you it's not the same school it once was," she says. "Two of the values that have always been important to P.S.1 are diversity and individuality. To me, this whole movement is away from these two values. This program is not about diversity and individuality; it's about conformity."
That's why Reilly stepped down in December. But before she left, she and Luke Beatty aired their concerns before the school's nine-member board of directors.
"We felt they were taking the psychic lives of children into their own hands and that they weren't being up front about their methodologies," says Beatty, who is leaving P.S.1 after this year. "I have no problem with Landmark, and if adults want to do it or if parents want to enroll their kids on their own, that's fine, but it has no business being in a public school. Linda and I said that not conveying this issue to the Board of Education would be an issue of non-disclosure. We suggested that they postpone the charter renewal."
Despite their pleas, the P.S.1 board of directors unanimously passed three resolutions: one formally recognizing Reilly for her contributions and accepting her resignation; one supporting Myers; and one stating that personal development is the same as professional development. Reilly and Had Beatty both told Denver Board of Education president Elaine Berman about their concerns, and Berman suggested that Brown hire an independent consultant to evaluate the Steps Ahead program.
Berman says her involvement in the matter ended there. "I don't think the school district or the school board should be meddling in the day-to-day operations of a charter school," she says. "As long as they adhere to their contract and follow Colorado law, it's not our role to get involved."
Brown never hired someone to evaluate the program, and on February 24, the Denver Board of Education renewed P.S.1's charter for another five years. "It was not an issue of concern to Denver Public Schools, because it was an issue at our school," Brown says. "Our board was aware of it, and we looked into it. We got materials on Landmark Education other than the Web page on cults," he adds, explaining that he felt the Harvard study and one by the University of Southern California determined Landmark was a sound business. "We decided there was no need for some outside person to come in."
That attitude, and the atmosphere at charter schools that allows it to flourish, has Reilly worried about the future of education in Colorado. Although charter schools technically answer to the board of education in their district, Colorado law gives them the leeway to offer any curriculum they want and to hire any teachers or administrators they want, regardless of their credentials.
Under Governor Bill Owens's new education reform plan, public schools that do poorly on annual reading, writing and math tests will be converted into charter schools, potentially giving many more schools similar license.
"Frankly, I think this is the biggest danger the charter-school movement faces," Reilly says. "To think that a program like this can infiltrate a charter school because it's small and autonomous is a big concern."