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

The story of how Sandra Dowling started the Thomas J. Pappas Schools for Homeless Children is downright touching.

Dowling "founded the Pappas School in 1990 after stopping a school-age girl on the street one day and asking her why she wasn't in school," Jessica L. Sandham reported in Education Week in January 2000.

David Hollenbach
The Pappas Schools are in a struggle to stay alive.
Martha Strachan
The Pappas Schools are in a struggle to stay alive.

"Since the girl could not provide a birth certificate, immunization records, or a permanent address, traditional elementary schools had refused to enroll her. Neighborhood schools, Dowling maintains, were then and still are ill-equipped to educate homeless children successfully."

Touching, yes.

But like so many stories that get repeated about the Pappas Schools, once I did a little reporting, I found out that it just wasn't true.

And I don't think Education Week was the only one who screwed up the story. You can read plenty of accounts of how Sandra Dowling started the Pappas Schools in 1990. When I went to Pappas last month, I even saw it on prominent display in the Phoenix Pappas Regional Elementary School lobby, along with Dowling's framed portrait and all that fake ivy.

But as even Dowling's lawyer, David Cantelme, has acknowledged, Dowling had nothing to do with starting the school. The person who did that was Marcia Hopp-Newman, and the nonprofit company she worked for, a sort of precursor to today's charter schools.

Now, Cantelme doesn't put the facts quite so baldly. In oral arguments last week, trying to persuade Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Margaret Downie that the county supervisors had no right to shut down the Pappas Schools, Cantelme was merely stating a quick version of the school's history.

What really happened is this:

In 1988, homelessness was a big topic of conversation, but no one in Phoenix had seemed to realize that kids in shelters were kids who weren't being educated. Probably, it was just easier not to notice.

But Marcia Hopp-Newman noticed.

Today a reading teacher at Cesar Chavez High School and the owner of a small grant-writing business, Hopp-Newman is happy to tell the story.

She was dropping off some old clothes at the downtown Central Arizona Support Services shelter one weekday when she saw a dozen kids, just hanging out.

It seemed odd. So she tracked down the shelter's director, an old friend. The director explained that the kids were embarrassed to have the school bus pick them up at a homeless shelter. And some of the schools were leery about taking them in, anyway.

So they skipped school, the director explained, until they found real housing again.

Marcia Hopp-Newman was not one to let a situation like that stand. So she persuaded her special function school to agree to sponsor a new school, right on site at the shelter. And then she won a grant to pay for a teacher.

"I went to the United Way and asked for $25,000," she says. "I told them, 'This will be the best $25,000 you've ever spent.' And I got it."

With one room donated inside the shelter, a $21,000 salary, and a dozen kids, many at different grade levels, the job defined "stress."

The first teacher, Hopp-Newman recalls, quit within two months.

But the teacher left an important legacy: Her brother was a Phoenix firefighter, and he rapidly enlisted his crew to help with anything that needed to be done.

And the idea of giving homeless kids an education proved to be a powerful one.

Helping homeless adults may be controversial in some circles — What, they can't work like everyone else? — but children were a no-brainer.

"The publicity started immediately," Hopp-Newman recalls. "The firefighters saw to that. And everyone wrote about it like we were gods and goddesses. The money was just flowing in."

It was then they asked Sandra Dowling to take over.

First elected in 1988 to the school superintendent's job after an unsuccessful run for state treasurer, Dowling built her résumé even as she built an educational empire.

She earned her master's and doctoral degrees in education and administration after getting elected. The county footed the bill for at least $2,200 in expenses, even though the credentials weren't a requirement for the job. In addition, she picked up a real estate license in 1998, according to state records.

At the time Marcia Hopp-Newman and the school's founders asked Dowling to take over the shelter school, in 1990, they'd had no plans for expansion. They just wanted the kids to get the state funding that normal pupils got, and Dowling had the infrastructure for that, Hopp-Newman says.

But Dowling was clearly ambitious.

When she first took office, the superintendent seat was largely a ceremonial post. Most county superintendents stick to clerical tasks, like helping small districts do their budgets and invoicing.

The law, however, allows Dowling to establish schools for students not being served by regular districts, and establish she did. And, since Dowling serves as her own governing board, there was no one with the power to make her stop.

So when the Williams Air Force Base closed, Dowling repositioned the school there to take on dropouts. She also opened a school with the goal of serving the kids who'd been expelled from other districts.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Please text me information please aboutThe school please cause I need helpIn text me phone number

Phoenix Concert Tickets