Longform

Flunk'd

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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