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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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske