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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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske