Longform

Flunk'd

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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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske