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The district won a grant for $1.5 million in federal funds over three years. And while the funding's been exhausted, Kyrene officials set up a foundation to obtain private funds and keep the program going strong.

Now, at the Kyrene Family Resource Center, manager Roxanne Richardson supplies services to 185 homeless students and their families, along with a host of low-income children. Reasoning that many of the needs are the same, the district doesn't discriminate.

There's a clothing storeroom, its racks of gently used clothing no less bountiful than Pappas'. There are five cabinets of food and another of toiletries. Small toys have been washed, sorted into small combos, and packed up in Ziploc baggies for kids who might come to visit.

"If these families need anything, they know they can call and ask," Richardson says. A warm, chatty woman in her 50s, she raised five kids as a single mom; she knows what it's like to scramble.

"If they need clothing, I'll come over and pick them up so they can see what we have," she says. "If they need to sign up for food stamps, I'll drive them over there, too."

Kyrene is considered one of the best programs in the area, but it's far from alone.

Since No Child Left Behind was enacted, the Arizona Department of Education has doled out several million dollars in grants, including $1.13 million in 2004 alone. Every district in the state now has a designated homeless coordinator. The state staffer in Jennifer Ayers' old job, Mattie McVey, works to train everyone from superintendents and secretaries about the services that each district, even the ones without grants, is required to provide.

With a more forceful set of directives than ever before, No Child Left Behind explicitly forbade segregating students on the basis of their housing status.

But despite the big changes in Arizona, Congress gave the Pappas School a special waiver to continue.

It wasn't without a fight. The Pappas question was so heated that Congress held a hearing on school grounds in 2000.

But when No Child Left Behind was eventually signed into law, it included a special exemption for homeless schools already operating in four counties: three much smaller schools in California, and the Pappas Schools in Phoenix.

Sandra Dowling had again hung on to her signature project.

And that was despite test scores that were abysmal, even then.

Luisa Stark, who chairs the Phoenix Consortium to End Homelessness, made sure the congressional committee was well aware of that.

"Regardless of grade level, the average student at Pappas scored lower on the Stanford 9 test than students attending other high poverty schools with high mobility rates in the central Phoenix area," she told the committee, according to transcripts.

"The higher test scores at area schools attended by very poor students, some of whom transfer to Pappas when they become homeless, would lead one to conclude that if homeless students were to continue their education at their school of origin, they would fare better academically than if they attended Pappas."

But Dowling had promoted her empire so well, and recruited so many politicians to her side, that few people with clout were willing to challenge her.

Congressman Matt Salmon, a Republican then about to launch a run for governor, defended Pappas, blasting the feds for even thinking of shutting it down — and also ridiculed homeless advocates like Stark for daring to call the schools segregated. Salmon's GOP colleague John Shadegg said the school had "turned out to be a vastly greater success than I think anybody ever imagined."

Even Arizona schools superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan spoke in favor of Pappas.

This despite the fact that Jennifer Ayers, the department's own homeless coordinator, had been an informed critic of the Pappas program.

In fact, transcripts show that Graham Keegan never argued that the Pappas School could provide the best education. Instead, the state's chief educator danced around the problematic test scores.

"I do not think any of us would say that the test scores, the absolute test scores that are here, are what you would ultimately want for children," she admitted. "I know the teachers at the school would not tell you that."

But though she didn't cite any empirical evidence, Graham Keegan insisted that the students were making huge gains as individuals.

Then she quickly reached to the heart of the matter.

"Oftentimes the kindest, most supportive and most encouraging environment for children is an environment when children can look in another child's eyes and see their own life reflected there," she said. "This is what happens at Thomas J. Pappas."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske