Longform

Flunk'd

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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.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske