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

I certainly never thought about it, not while on tour of the clothing bank and food pantry. I oohed and aahed over the great birthday gifts just like everyone else.

It's easy to romanticize the poor, to think of every homeless kid as Oliver Twist, pink-cheeked and desperate for one more bite of gruel. It's a bit of a shock, sometimes, to realize that the issues affecting poor children today are much harder to address than hunger or nakedness.

I tried to help my 10-year-old by buying her things, partly because I felt helpless, and spending money was something I know how to do.

Roxanne Richardson's district, Kyrene, offers resources for homeless and low-income families.
Martha Strachan
Roxanne Richardson's district, Kyrene, offers resources for homeless and low-income families.
Dina Vance, principal of Phoenix Pappas Regional Elementary, says kids need the services at her school.
Martha Strachan
Dina Vance, principal of Phoenix Pappas Regional Elementary, says kids need the services at her school.

I bought her a Barbie, one with dark hair just like hers, because that's what I would have wanted when I was her age. I was surprised when she pointed out, tactfully, that girls today like Bratz instead — but I shouldn't have been. Nor should I have been surprised that she'd seen more new movies than I had.

When did you see that? I'd asked, shocked, when she casually noted watching one of the latest scary movies the night before.

My mom bought the DVD, she said, trying to pretend for my sake it wasn't a stupid question.

Clearly, she didn't need me to open her eyes to the cool stuff you can buy in America. And while it made me feel good to give it to her, it wasn't nearly as useful as if I'd been able to open her eyes to the opportunities that could be hers, if only she could study her tail off.

Giving toys is easy. Giving a kid the world is hard.

It takes much more than a semester — and even then, who knows? If they could figure out how to teach that, poverty wouldn't be so horribly persistent in a country where we've spent billions to fight it.

But after talking to the experts and reading the news clips, part of the problem, I think, is that much of the rhetoric pumped out about Pappas has an undercurrent of pity.

There's a constant inference that maybe these are kids who can't learn, whose lives are so tough that the most anyone can do is focus on physical gratification: toys, clothes, food.

Dowling herself told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001 that the students at Pappas "cannot compete and never will compete with other schools" — a remark that drew outcry from the relatively obscure Children's Legal Rights Journal, but didn't draw any attention in Phoenix.

"These children cannot go into a regular classroom without being teased, taunted, called 'special education,' whatever the other kids would call them," Dowling told me Tuesday. "If they weren't in our school, they would never stand a chance."

Unfortunately, Dowling's is not an unusual attitude when it comes to desperately poor children in this country.

The good news is, some of the smartest people I talked to for this article told a different story.

They had examples of homeless students who manage to succeed, despite all the odds stacked against them.

Take Edie Sims. She used to teach homeless kids at a special school in Spokane, Washington. When the school was shut down in 1999, she went to work as coordinator for the program integrating her former pupils into mainstream public schools.

What Sims and her colleagues witnessed came as a surprise. They'd cried over the closing of the homeless school; they'd ached for the poor students being cast into unfeeling mainstream schools.

But when those kids were put into neighborhood schools, no longer labeled as homeless, something great happened.

The kids thrived.

Not always, of course.

But offering a bigger world, and higher expectations, seemed to open young minds.

"We'd preferred to say, 'They're in shock, and schools aren't supporting them, and they could never make it in regular schools,'" Sims says.

That just wasn't the case.

In regular schools, the homeless kids got the same opportunities as every other student — band, drama, athletic teams. They were working hard. And though Sims' program had to labor to ensure that each one was being given special attention and support, from new backpacks full of school supplies to transportation, she could see they were thriving.

About 51 percent of the homeless kids used to get held back each year under Spokane's old system, Sims says. In the mainstream schools, it's down to just a few children each year. Attendance rates are up, and some students are now staying in school long enough to graduate — 25 this year, only six of whom were actually living with a parent.

Best of all: Every year, at least a few go to college.

Sims' program has been able to make those huge strides with just three full-time staffers and a foundation that raises less than $4,000 a year.

"The whole district slowly has taken on that it's not an excuse to say they can't learn because their family comes from poverty," Sims says. "It's a snobby approach to say they can't learn like other people, just because of a temporary socioeconomic event in their life.

"People meant well, but they went from concern to pity. And that's a fine line — but it's a huge line. Once you go to pity, your expectations get lower."

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