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

The homeless school in downtown Phoenix, though, would prove the biggest bonanza of all.

The school had fewer than 25 students when she took it over in 1990. By 2000, recruitment had expanded that number to 1,000.

Hopp-Newman says she and some early supporters walked away when it became clear that Dowling's priorities differed vastly from theirs.

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

They wanted to help teachers, she says, and improve the kids' lives. But Dowling seemed to want a blank check.

The final straw came when Dowling asked the Pappas Foundation to finance an $11,000 photocopier.

"We thought, 'This is a publicly funded entity. Why should we pay for that?'" Hopp-Newman recalls. "That's when we broadened ourselves. There were other districts helping just as many homeless kids."

Indeed, Hopp-Newman became increasingly convinced that students could be best served by staying in their local districts. All the money that underwrote Dowling's kingdom, she thought, could build a support network to reach homeless kids at neighborhood schools.

But Dowling had grown an empire — and she wasn't about to support her subjects' diaspora.

From its single classroom, the Thomas J. Pappas School grew to three campuses, including a second elementary school in Tempe. Dowling had hoped to build a fourth, in Glendale, although plans were halted last year after her political fortunes shifted and both city and county leaders stepped in.

For most of the past decade, though, Dowling enjoyed almost unqualified political support.

"You want to do well in politics in Arizona, you have to like Pappas," says Jennifer Ayers, homeless coordinator for the Arizona Department of Education from 1998 to 2002.

No one was willing to stand up and oppose a school that had such great press clips. (And what politician likes to oppose any school, for that matter?) It was for the children — never mind that the people on the ground, homeless experts and educators, were less impressed. They'd been cut out of the loop.

After doing a little research, Ayers says she, too, concluded that it was better for homeless kids to stay in their neighborhood schools. She pushed long and hard for someone with power to pay attention to what was going on at Pappas.

But after four years on the job, and vocal criticism of Pappas, Ayers' department was reshuffled — mainly, it seemed to her, so that she could no longer agitate against Pappas.

She's never been told exactly what happened, but a politically connected co-worker whispered that their boss had gotten a phone call from a politician.

Ayers, the caller said, was too anti-Pappas. She had to go.

Ayers quit her job soon after. She still doesn't know who the politician was.

But she stands by her feelings about the school.

"What we're doing here by allowing Pappas to continue is appalling," she says.

"Giving these homeless children a good education is what's going to end homelessness in the long run. It's educational opportunities that help you get out of poverty. And that's what they're not getting at Pappas."

Laura Ryan taught school for 15 years before she moved to Phoenix to be closer to her family and got a job at Phoenix's Pappas Elementary School in February 2005.

She loved the idea of delivering social services on site, of meeting needs with immediacy.

But nothing prepared Ryan for what she found at Pappas.

Turnover was so high, she says, that her second graders had already gone through two teachers that year. And, when it came to pupils, chaos was constant.

Other teachers warned her that a rash of students would suddenly transfer into her class from other public schools in December, taking advantage of the sizable Wal-Mart gift cards and Christmas presents given to pupils and their families. They also told her she'd get another influx a few weeks before the school year ended. Other schools were out for the summer, and parents were enrolling their kids at Pappas as free day care.

But the lack of constancy wreaked havoc on lesson planning. And classes were hardly small to begin with: When school resumed last fall, Ryan was assigned to teach a fourth-grade class with 47 pupils.

When some fifth graders started struggling, they were sent to Ryan's class, adding another six or seven students.

"That's warehousing, not educating," Ryan says, incredulous.

And these were students who truly needed attention.

"Typically in a classroom, you've got four to six children that are really in need, whether that's academically or socially," Ryan says. "But all of our kids were in that situation — and that is overwhelming."

Indeed, for all the good ink given to the services at Pappas, it's worth noting that while the school's marquee campus, the Phoenix elementary school, typically has close to 550 students, it has just one social worker. Much of the burden for giving the pupils any sort of individual attention falls on the teachers.

And while class size fluctuates, it seems to fall on the high end of what's acceptable at any school, much less one with so many special needs.

"Report cards" from the Arizona Department of Education show a 30-1 student-teacher ratio at the Phoenix elementary school last year. More than half of the teachers had less than six years' experience; none, the district reported, had a master's degree.

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