At the Thomas J. Pappas School, needy students can get free clothes, shoes, food, and dental work, all without leaving campus.

What they can't get is much of an education.

For more than a decade, Maricopa County's Pappas School has nurtured a national reputation as a place that delivers life's essentials to homeless children who might otherwise never get them.

The three Pappas campuses — elementary schools in Phoenix and Tempe, plus a middle school in Phoenix — have served not just thousands of free breakfasts and lunches, but also sent home bags of canned goods, television sets, and bicycles to needy families. Kids without shoes get a pair; kids with lice get treatment. There's not only a social worker right on campus, but a staff generous with smiles and hugs.

Everyone from Morley Safer to Family Circle to USA Today has swooned over the magic. After educating homeless kids here for almost two decades, the Pappas School has become an institution in a town too young to have many of them.

The Pappas campus in Phoenix is where Valley residents send toys (at Christmas) and turkeys (at Thanksgiving). It's where George W. Bush just happened to stop on his way through town in 1999. It's, officially, a Phoenix "Point of Pride" — and the recipient of nearly $1 million in outright donations last year alone.

This year, though, the Pappas Schools have been in the news for a far different reason. Maricopa County Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling, who runs the schools, became the subject of a blistering financial review by the county supervisors, then the focus of a criminal investigation from the sheriff. (The investigation is still open; no charges have been filed.)

In May, alarmed by the district's sorry financial state, the supervisors voted unanimously to close down the schools. Dowling responded by taking them to court.

For Pappas, it's been months of pile-on media coverage. But the focus has been almost entirely on politics. When the TV cameras stop to train their lenses on the school itself, it's typically to ponder the donations that Pappas doles out, not what goes on in the classroom.

No one talks about the learning.

Sandra Dowling won an important victory last week: a court ruling that will almost certainly keep the Pappas School alive for at least one more year, despite shaky finances.

It's worth asking the question of whether that's a good thing.

Unfortunately for Dowling, the research is in. And it's far more critical than 60 Minutes ever was — and, arguably, far more important than the mismanagement that the auditor found so interesting.

A total of 11,560 homeless kids attended school in Maricopa County last year. Of those, 1,400 were enrolled at the Pappas Schools — the place specifically designated for them, the place that's supposed to meet all their needs.

But there's one big difference between the homeless kids who attend school at Pappas and the other homeless kids in Maricopa County.

Academically, the kids at Pappas do a whole lot worse.

There are two prominent photographs hanging in the lobby of the Pappas Schools' flagship campus in Phoenix.

One, behind a glass cabinet with other memorabilia from celebrities who've visited, is of Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey did a segment on Pappas in the mid-'90s, a fact that's still spoken about reverently in the school's hallways.

The second is of Dr. Sandra E. Dowling, the tiny woman with a bright red Marine crop who serves as the schools' public face and most emphatic booster. Something of a publicity hound, Dowling attracts nasty gossip the way that Angelina Jolie picks up orphans.

There's the story of how she muscled her way onto Oprah. The whispers, now verified in that audit, of how she got her son hired to do the district's landscaping. There's the sniping about the second office she opened for herself over at Pappas Middle School, because having one at the county building a mile away just wasn't close enough.

In the Pappas lobby, however, Dowling is in her element. In a frame, nestled in a bower of plastic ivy, she looks positively beatific.

The school itself is a sunny, friendly place. Perhaps because its staff hosts endless tours for the philanthropic, would-be philanthropic, and merely curious, everyone seems to know the routine and executes it with practiced pathos.

The tours tend to focus almost exclusively on the school's social service mission:

Here's where they give away clothes to the children. The poor dears, some of them have never had a new pair of shoes before.

There's the toy closet. At the monthly birthday parties, everyone celebrating their annual milestone gets a gift. Everyone! And you should see their eyes when they get to come inside the toy room — kids who have nothing, and all these toys to choose from.

Visitors can't help but be touched.

I know because I was one of them.

Long before I thought I'd ever write about the place, in January 2005, I signed up to be a mentor. I was new in town, and I'd heard Pappas did great things. The tour reeled me in.

So I attempted to mentor a fourth-grade girl, a lovely girl with a first name so unique that I can't repeat it here without invading her privacy. I still feel lousy about dropping out of the program — I got busy, and she told me her family was moving to New York during the summer break. It was entirely my fault for not following up; turns out, they stayed.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

"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.

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.

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.

It shouldn't be a surprise that none of the three Pappas Schools has met the "adequate yearly progress" marks demanded by No Child Left Behind.

And those standards don't compare Pappas students to their more privileged counterparts at other schools. They solely measure whether the school has managed to better itself, compared to its past years' performance.

Ironically, Superintendent Dowling is one of the few educators nationally who's been a vocal supporter of that legislation. But while the Arizona Republic ran her op-ed praising No Child Left Behind's authorization in 2004, no one bothered to call Dowling for comment when her own schools fell short.

Nancy Haas, an associate professor at Arizona State University's College of Teacher Education and Leadership, teaches accountability and assessments at ASU, along with curriculum development. She used to volunteer at Pappas, and even helped to rewrite the school's curriculum in 1995.

But she now believes the schools should be shut down and the students integrated into neighborhood schools.

Haas analyzed AIMS results from spring 2005. She found that test scores at all three Pappas schools were abysmal, when compared with the scores of mainstreamed homeless kids.

For example: Of the homeless seventh graders in the state attending regular schools, 48.8 percent "met or exceeded standards" in reading.

That was true of just 11.8 percent of the seventh graders at Pappas.

In fact, at every grade level, in both math and reading, a higher percentage of the homeless kids who didn't go to Pappas "met or exceeded" the state's standards.

(Dowling contests the statistics, saying that as a longtime critic of Pappas, Haas is biased.)

Meanwhile, the district's per-pupil classroom expenditures are among the lowest in the state.

But despite Dowling's attempts to blame the county supervisors, it's not because they're getting less money.

According to the state inspector general, the Maricopa County Regional School District spends $3,756 per pupil on administration — about $500 more than it spends, per student, on classroom instruction.

Of the 10 "accommodation districts" in this state that seek to educate students in special circumstances, only three spent a lower percentage of money in the classroom. And of the 109 medium-size districts in Arizona, only two spent a lower proportion of money in the classroom.

Across the state in 2005, the auditor general reported, districts spent an average of 9.5 percent of their budgets on "administration" — a category that includes salaries and benefits for high-level district executives.

The total at Maricopa County Regional? More than twice that amount, at 23 percent.

The irony of Sandra Dowling's dramatic expansion of Maricopa County's homeless school system is that she did it even as the U.S. Department of Education pushed the country in a different direction: integrating homeless kids into regular schools.

In fact, since 1990, the very year Dowling took over the shelter school, homeless schools have been virtually forbidden by federal law.

The reason?

For the most part, shelter schools were wildly inferior. Like the school begun in the downtown Phoenix shelter, they were stopgap fixes for the very real hurdles that homeless kids faced in the 1980s. While they didn't require immunization records, they also couldn't offer music, gym, or even a teacher at every grade level.

"There was just no comparison with what regular public schools were offering," says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Youth.

To advocates, shunting homeless kids into separate schools was no better than the segregation of black students in the 1950s.

"These kids should have access to the same programs that housed kids have access to," Duffield says. "And what the evidence has shown is that these schools are not good for kids."

Congress agreed.

In 1990, as part of its reauthorization of the program that funds homeless services, McKinney-Vento, Congress decreed that kids could not be segregated merely because they were homeless. McKinney-Vento required states and school districts to revise any policies that led to homeless children being "isolated or stigmatized."

It was an edict that Dowling found all too easy to ignore. She argued that people like Duffield may think the Pappas kids were being isolated, but they were hardly stigmatized: Her schools had all the modern conveniences, lovely campuses, and even more perks than regular schools, not fewer.

And it was certainly in the best interest of every overworked school official in town that no one challenge her. It was much easier to let Dowling deal with it.

At that time, the "isolation" part of the act wasn't being enforced with any vigor. But in other parts of the country, as people like Barbara Duffield pushed, opportunities for homeless students were expanding.

Districts across the country were adjusting with the new federal rules.

They were accepting students without immunization records or birth certificates. (State education workers were supposed to make sure every school secretary in the state knew it, or risk losing all their federal funds.) And they were also providing transportation.

In 2002, Congress reauthorized the rules mandating homeless integration as part of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind.

This time, the feds provided about $62 million, annually, for districts that wanted to help their homeless students.

Thanks to that, many districts were finally able to start programs specifically to help homeless children. Although they'd previously been mandated to do so, money always makes a difference. Even in Maricopa County, where the Pappas Schools had been allowed to serve as a catchall for so long, many districts began to step up.

Indeed, people who pay attention to homeless education in Arizona now cite numerous examples of school districts that have put together superior programs for homeless families — and are providing services along with superior educational opportunities.

One example is the Kyrene School District, in a fairly affluent area of south Tempe.

The district won a grant for $1.5 million in federal funds over three years. And while the funding's been exhausted, Kyrene officials set up a foundation to obtain private funds and keep the program going strong.

Now, at the Kyrene Family Resource Center, manager Roxanne Richardson supplies services to 185 homeless students and their families, along with a host of low-income children. Reasoning that many of the needs are the same, the district doesn't discriminate.

There's a clothing storeroom, its racks of gently used clothing no less bountiful than Pappas'. There are five cabinets of food and another of toiletries. Small toys have been washed, sorted into small combos, and packed up in Ziploc baggies for kids who might come to visit.

"If these families need anything, they know they can call and ask," Richardson says. A warm, chatty woman in her 50s, she raised five kids as a single mom; she knows what it's like to scramble.

"If they need clothing, I'll come over and pick them up so they can see what we have," she says. "If they need to sign up for food stamps, I'll drive them over there, too."

Kyrene is considered one of the best programs in the area, but it's far from alone.

Since No Child Left Behind was enacted, the Arizona Department of Education has doled out several million dollars in grants, including $1.13 million in 2004 alone. Every district in the state now has a designated homeless coordinator. The state staffer in Jennifer Ayers' old job, Mattie McVey, works to train everyone from superintendents and secretaries about the services that each district, even the ones without grants, is required to provide.

With a more forceful set of directives than ever before, No Child Left Behind explicitly forbade segregating students on the basis of their housing status.

But despite the big changes in Arizona, Congress gave the Pappas School a special waiver to continue.

It wasn't without a fight. The Pappas question was so heated that Congress held a hearing on school grounds in 2000.

But when No Child Left Behind was eventually signed into law, it included a special exemption for homeless schools already operating in four counties: three much smaller schools in California, and the Pappas Schools in Phoenix.

Sandra Dowling had again hung on to her signature project.

And that was despite test scores that were abysmal, even then.

Luisa Stark, who chairs the Phoenix Consortium to End Homelessness, made sure the congressional committee was well aware of that.

"Regardless of grade level, the average student at Pappas scored lower on the Stanford 9 test than students attending other high poverty schools with high mobility rates in the central Phoenix area," she told the committee, according to transcripts.

"The higher test scores at area schools attended by very poor students, some of whom transfer to Pappas when they become homeless, would lead one to conclude that if homeless students were to continue their education at their school of origin, they would fare better academically than if they attended Pappas."

But Dowling had promoted her empire so well, and recruited so many politicians to her side, that few people with clout were willing to challenge her.

Congressman Matt Salmon, a Republican then about to launch a run for governor, defended Pappas, blasting the feds for even thinking of shutting it down — and also ridiculed homeless advocates like Stark for daring to call the schools segregated. Salmon's GOP colleague John Shadegg said the school had "turned out to be a vastly greater success than I think anybody ever imagined."

Even Arizona schools superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan spoke in favor of Pappas.

This despite the fact that Jennifer Ayers, the department's own homeless coordinator, had been an informed critic of the Pappas program.

In fact, transcripts show that Graham Keegan never argued that the Pappas School could provide the best education. Instead, the state's chief educator danced around the problematic test scores.

"I do not think any of us would say that the test scores, the absolute test scores that are here, are what you would ultimately want for children," she admitted. "I know the teachers at the school would not tell you that."

But though she didn't cite any empirical evidence, Graham Keegan insisted that the students were making huge gains as individuals.

Then she quickly reached to the heart of the matter.

"Oftentimes the kindest, most supportive and most encouraging environment for children is an environment when children can look in another child's eyes and see their own life reflected there," she said. "This is what happens at Thomas J. Pappas."

Despite the lousy test scores, despite all the activists and experts raising concerns, it wasn't until Sandra Dowling ran out of money that the question of whether to segregate homeless kids really became an issue.

Maricopa County has long subsidized Dowling's district, to the tune of about $530,000 annually. But Dowling had begun to run up deficits in recent years, and after she asked for an additional cash infusion last year, the supervisors looked at the books and realized she was $4 million in the hole.

(Dowling disputes that figure, saying the district has only a "cash flow problem.")

But that's when things got ugly. County Auditor Ross Tate says Dowling refused to supply invoices and payment information, at the supervisors' request, so the supervisors got a subpoena. And though Dowling literally hid under a pile of coats rather than be served with it, eventually the supervisors obtained most of the records they wanted.

Those they didn't get, ostensibly, ended up in the hands of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose SWAT team showed up at Dowling's doorstep and seized even more papers.

After auditor Tate spent months poring over the books, he pronounced that Dowling's finances were in terrible shape. He also revealed a host of irregularities, including all those Dowlings on the payroll that everybody had been whispering about for years.

(As it turned out, all four of Dowling's children, plus one son-in-law, had been hired at various points to work for the district.)

"As early as the 2003 fiscal year, the leadership at the regional school district knew they had a problem, but they just continued spending," Tate told the supervisors at a meeting in April.

But while the supervisors were clearly livid about the sloppy finances, they didn't just look at the books. In hopes of understanding how to address the district's problems, they hired the retired Murphy School District superintendent, Bob Donofrio, as a consultant.

His conclusion: In an age where every school district is working to serve homeless kids, the Pappas Schools had become redundant.

"The landscape of public schools has dramatically changed over the last decade," he told the supervisors.

And Donofrio, who'd led a school district with many low-income students, knew what he was talking about.

After studying the issue, Donofrio said, he realized that more than 40 percent of the students at Murphy fit the federal definition of "homeless." (If a family, for example, is "doubled up" with an aunt or grandparent, they are technically homeless and eligible to enroll at Pappas.)

"Most schools, especially those dealing with poverty students, now realize that in order to reach student learning outcomes, they cannot only concentrate on the academic side," Donofrio said. "They must also deal with the social service side, to stabilize families and offer an array of services."

Fourteen other districts were willing to take the Pappas students, Donofrio said. Some offered to run the schools themselves with "little or no" county subsidy — and these were districts with much better records of academic success.

In May, after budget negotiations reached an impasse, the supervisors voted to shut down the Pappas Schools.

But after lying low for a few months, Dowling had begun an offensive.

First she filed suit, challenging the supervisors' right to close the schools.

Since her longtime public relations director, Ernalee Phelps, left the district last year and has yet to be replaced, Dowling had hired P. David Bridger, former community relations director at Channel 10, to raise money and handle public relations. With his raspy Rod Stewart accent, Bridger outlined the case for keeping Pappas open to any reporter who would listen.

At the Pappas Elementary School, volunteers and teachers began to sport purple ribbons. They discussed holding a candlelight vigil outside the school. Although that never came to fruition, giant banners begging the community to save Pappas soon hung outside the school.

Last week, as Judge Margaret Downie heard arguments in the court case, there was no room for theatrics — but also no word about education.

As Downie explained, the law didn't allow her to consider whether the schools were providing a good education, or even whether they should be kept open. She was only to decide whether the supervisors had usurped her authority.

Still, about a dozen teachers showed up to hear the thick legal arguments, all wearing bright purple shirts.

A group politely declined to talk to me, although principal Dina Vance did chat briefly with the TV cameras outside the courthouse.

"Pappas provides what other school districts don't," she said. "It's a stable environment, a place where all students are the same. We're all a family."

Last Tuesday, Judge Margaret Downie gave Pappas supporters the news they'd hoped for. The county supervisors, she wrote, had overreached. Only Dowling could decide which schools to open or close.

The supervisors have said they will not appeal.

Sandra Dowling's battles, however, are not over. Remember, Sheriff Joe Arpaio seized all those records last winter.

Bridger claims that Arpaio now realizes he's been hoodwinked.

But in a written statement, Arpaio insists that his detectives are still hard at work.

"My office continues to conduct a thorough criminal investigation of Sandra Dowling, and others; this investigation is progressing and moving forward," his statement says.

There's also the matter of funding. Dowling's district ran up a $4 million deficit even before the supervisors decided to cut off funding. Dowling has said that she'll close three other schools in the district to save money — but if the supervisors refuse to kick in their annual $530,000 contribution, her budget may still be in big trouble, for next year if not this one.

And a much bigger problem may be looming.

The special exemption given to the Pappas Schools will have to be reauthorized at the time No Child Left Behind expires in two or three years, as Gary Rutkin, the U.S. Department of Education's McKinney-Vento program officer, confirms.

The timetable is up to Congress. But Rutkin's already working on compiling information about his program. Although he doesn't make any predictions, he does indicate that the Pappas Schools' bad academic performance is likely to be an issue.

Numerous studies have detailed how hard it is for homeless students to reach the same academic marks as their peers in more stable environments. But the research seems to be shifting as homeless children are welcomed into real classrooms with full resources.

Indeed, a 2004 study suggests that being homeless affects students in the short term, but its effects are completely mitigated within five years. At that point, the formerly homeless students did no worse than other poor kids.

And while poverty is hardly an easy factor to dismiss, it's far more hopeful to think of homelessness as one factor in many, not the ultimate tragedy.

In fact, a landmark 2001 study from the Journal of School Psychology suggests that the reason so many homeless kids did so badly for years may not have been their homeless status.

The study, published after many schools began integrating homeless kids, found that homeless students did just as well in school as their low-income counterparts with housing.

The kids who were failing weren't necessarily homeless. Instead, they were the kids who changed schools most frequently.

It's a strong argument that the Pappas model isn't going to work, even if it manages to get some stability and reduce class sizes.

After all, nobody enrolls at a school like Pappas until they're homeless, and — based on the test scores — no one should want to stay on once they've reached a more stable place. But transferring in, and transferring out, to any school certainly adds to the academic upheaval.

The feds seem to be aware of the results, if not the root causes. Rutkin says he's personally aware of the comparative test scores that show homeless students doing worse at Pappas. And it's an issue for him.

"I've shared my concern with those who follow the academic progress of these students," Rutkin says. "I'm paying attention to this. I'm concerned any time someone tells me a program isn't as good as other programs."

As one of the few holdouts to the federal push to integrate schools, Pappas would surely face plenty of scrutiny. But it's likely to be even worse if the fight comes while Dowling is still wounded politically.

Yes, she's tough, and she's surprised her critics repeatedly. But she's always counted on politicians siding with her against education experts. When it comes to the county supervisors, at least, they appear to be genuinely concerned about Pappas' test scores.

Even if the political rift is healed, they're unlikely to jump to Dowling's defense this time around.

It's also possible that Pappas' failures may be even more glaring compared to the success that their mainstreamed counterparts seem to be achieving.

Rutkin says the data is still being gathered, but there seems to be clear indication that the kids absorbed into mainstream school districts are making strides.

"We've only recently started assessing this on a national basis," he says. "But it looks like we're going to have a good story of how homeless kids are doing overall. And what we want to see is progress and improvement."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske