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After doing a little research, Ayers says she, too, concluded that it was better for homeless kids to stay in their neighborhood schools. She pushed long and hard for someone with power to pay attention to what was going on at Pappas.

But after four years on the job, and vocal criticism of Pappas, Ayers' department was reshuffled — mainly, it seemed to her, so that she could no longer agitate against Pappas.

She's never been told exactly what happened, but a politically connected co-worker whispered that their boss had gotten a phone call from a politician.

Ayers, the caller said, was too anti-Pappas. She had to go.

Ayers quit her job soon after. She still doesn't know who the politician was.

But she stands by her feelings about the school.

"What we're doing here by allowing Pappas to continue is appalling," she says.

"Giving these homeless children a good education is what's going to end homelessness in the long run. It's educational opportunities that help you get out of poverty. And that's what they're not getting at Pappas."

Laura Ryan taught school for 15 years before she moved to Phoenix to be closer to her family and got a job at Phoenix's Pappas Elementary School in February 2005.

She loved the idea of delivering social services on site, of meeting needs with immediacy.

But nothing prepared Ryan for what she found at Pappas.

Turnover was so high, she says, that her second graders had already gone through two teachers that year. And, when it came to pupils, chaos was constant.

Other teachers warned her that a rash of students would suddenly transfer into her class from other public schools in December, taking advantage of the sizable Wal-Mart gift cards and Christmas presents given to pupils and their families. They also told her she'd get another influx a few weeks before the school year ended. Other schools were out for the summer, and parents were enrolling their kids at Pappas as free day care.

But the lack of constancy wreaked havoc on lesson planning. And classes were hardly small to begin with: When school resumed last fall, Ryan was assigned to teach a fourth-grade class with 47 pupils.

When some fifth graders started struggling, they were sent to Ryan's class, adding another six or seven students.

"That's warehousing, not educating," Ryan says, incredulous.

And these were students who truly needed attention.

"Typically in a classroom, you've got four to six children that are really in need, whether that's academically or socially," Ryan says. "But all of our kids were in that situation — and that is overwhelming."

Indeed, for all the good ink given to the services at Pappas, it's worth noting that while the school's marquee campus, the Phoenix elementary school, typically has close to 550 students, it has just one social worker. Much of the burden for giving the pupils any sort of individual attention falls on the teachers.

And while class size fluctuates, it seems to fall on the high end of what's acceptable at any school, much less one with so many special needs.

"Report cards" from the Arizona Department of Education show a 30-1 student-teacher ratio at the Phoenix elementary school last year. More than half of the teachers had less than six years' experience; none, the district reported, had a master's degree.

It shouldn't be a surprise that none of the three Pappas Schools has met the "adequate yearly progress" marks demanded by No Child Left Behind.

And those standards don't compare Pappas students to their more privileged counterparts at other schools. They solely measure whether the school has managed to better itself, compared to its past years' performance.

Ironically, Superintendent Dowling is one of the few educators nationally who's been a vocal supporter of that legislation. But while the Arizona Republic ran her op-ed praising No Child Left Behind's authorization in 2004, no one bothered to call Dowling for comment when her own schools fell short.

Nancy Haas, an associate professor at Arizona State University's College of Teacher Education and Leadership, teaches accountability and assessments at ASU, along with curriculum development. She used to volunteer at Pappas, and even helped to rewrite the school's curriculum in 1995.

But she now believes the schools should be shut down and the students integrated into neighborhood schools.

Haas analyzed AIMS results from spring 2005. She found that test scores at all three Pappas schools were abysmal, when compared with the scores of mainstreamed homeless kids.

For example: Of the homeless seventh graders in the state attending regular schools, 48.8 percent "met or exceeded standards" in reading.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske