The Thomas J. Pappas School gives homeless kids everything they need — except a good education

She's a great kid: smart, funny, more confident than I'll ever be. In my semester at Pappas, I was touched by her pluck and warmed by how happy she and her friends were, teasing each other, teasing me, getting teased by the boys.

They never felt sorry for themselves; I don't think it ever would have occurred to them. They didn't talk about the difficulties that they all, surely, were coping with outside of school. Instead, they talked about their bratty little brothers and the dance moves on MTV.

In my short time at Pappas, I never doubted that the Pappas teachers truly wanted to help their charges, and I still don't question that today.

Sandra Dowling, now locked in the political fight of her life.
Martha Strachan
Sandra Dowling, now locked in the political fight of her life.
Marcia Hopp-Newman started the school that became Pappas.
Martha Strachan
Marcia Hopp-Newman started the school that became Pappas.

The fourth-grade teacher looked younger than I was, which scared me for her sake. Yes, a teacher in her late 20s might well have years of experience, but the task of educating any kids is a tough one; at Pappas it must be doubly so. (And, I have to admit, one of the most disconcerting things about hanging out with 10-year-olds was that they genuinely seemed to believe I was an adult — which made sense when I found out their mothers were all younger than me.)

But now that I've spent some time studying Pappas in a more clinical way, a darker picture has emerged.

As it turns out, this friendly school is top-heavy. There are high administrative expenses in the Maricopa County Regional School District, among the highest, proportionally, for any public school district in the state, compared to classroom spending.

As you might imagine, with that combination, and a population of kids that truly needs extra help and attention, academic achievement has been hard to come by.

Teachers are overwhelmed. Turnover is constant. Since 1992, there have been at least 16 different principals at Pappas.

The upper administration hasn't been stable, either. Last fall Dowling brought in a guy named Shawn Arevalo McCollough to be her top lieutenant.

He had a monster résumé: Thanks to his work with poor kids in Florida, McCollough was even cited in President Bush's acceptance speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention. He was an example, the district's press release said, of a "No Excuses!" principal who could inspire the kids at Pappas.

One indication of how serious McCollough took this stuff? One of his first edicts was to drastically curtail the hours that mentors like me could spend with their charges at Pappas. (It was the first time I started to wonder if I'd been doing more harm than good.)

But McCollough went on leave in January, and next year, there's another guy taking his place. The teachers were told it was for family reasons, although no one believed it.

The Pappas Schools receive so much positive attention, it's kind of eerie to consider how little of it has focused on the classroom.

On tour, the volunteers who help generate support for the school will show you the coats that warm young bodies, but they never talk about the curriculum that should be engaging young minds. Right away, you hear about Oprah — but it's only with prodding, and some confusion, that anyone can name more than one successful alum.

I'd left several messages for Dowling and her media point person, P. David Bridger, over the course of a week, but Dowling didn't call me back until just a few minutes before this story was supposed to go to the printer.

In our 20-minute conversation, she was friendly, but eager to defend Pappas. She had a response for every question posed.

Those statistics about how Pappas kids do worse than other homeless kids? They're inaccurate, she says.

The district's high administrative costs? They were solely the fault of a previous hire, a woman she's since replaced. Costs, Dowling insists, have since been reduced.

A high student-teacher ratio at Pappas? That's true, she admits, but it's the fault of the county supervisors, who need to better fund the schools.

She says that the reason kids at Pappas do so badly on standardized tests is because they come into the school so far behind their peers.

"When you start out so far below your grade level, just getting to your grade level is a real achievement," Dowling says.

She can sound convincing. But notes from two Arizona Department of Education staffers who visited the school in 2002 suggest a different problem.

"We toured the clothing bank, medical offices, offices and last but not least the classrooms," one of the staffers noted in a one-page summary, obtained by New Times through a public records request.

"Major emphasis was spent on the social service aspect of the school. Classroom observations included the following: lack of consistent materials in rooms, student discipline inconsistent and teaching strategies were limited and need enhancement."

The Maricopa County Auditor reports that the foundations supporting Pappas have brought in $5 million in the past five years. And while even the auditor doesn't suggest that a penny of that money has been lost, it's clear that the top priority for spending it wasn't teacher training or smaller class sizes.

No one should have been surprised by that; a great education was never promoted as the Pappas Schools' chief mission. But in retrospect, it seems odd that no one has bothered to ask why that's the case.

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