Letters From the Issue of Thursday, July 13, 2006

Bring on the Flunk

Life skills lacking: I'm glad that you took on the unhappy task of pointing out that giving things away to poor kids may not be the right thing to do ("Flunk'd," Sarah Fenske, June 29). The Thomas J. Pappas School does what it sets out to do, but it may need to rethink its purpose.

I have volunteered as a mentor for the past eight years for organizations that worked with homeless families. During that time, I worked one-on-one with six different children. Four of them went to Pappas. I first thought the idea of Pappas was good, until (upon talking to the children) it sounded like school, to them, was going on field trips, receiving clothes. Learning and being challenged didn't seem to much enter into the picture.

Where Pappas does great harm to children is giving them and their families things as a reward for being poor. What such families truly need are life-skills lessons. Most end up being homeless because a parent or parents create families without fully grasping the adult duties of running a household. Most cannot understand the basics of budgeting money.

I noticed that the children treated the clothing, coats and toys that they received at Pappas poorly. The attitude was if something breaks (if the coat gets lost or filthy) a replacement will be provided.

I think that Pappas teaches children there's no need to try hard. It's too bad, because I do think it's good if children can get food and medical care through the school. But, educationally, Pappas' curriculum centers on working the system. I point to the section of your article that notes how enrollment surges at Christmastime when donated Wal-Mart cards are handed out.
Bruce Kingfield, Phoenix

Don't be swayed by facts: I have worked at the Pappas school for more than eight years now, and I would like to respond to some comments made in the "Flunk'd" article.

You say: "What [students] can't get is much of an education." First, I'd like to know where your sources come from?! Have you personally reviewed Pappas' test scores? And can you really compare the test scores of kids living in crisis (some only coming to school a few times a week) to the test scores of children in other school districts?

You say: "Academically, the kids at Pappas do a whole lot worse." Again, I challenge your sources of information, and I believe you are sorely incorrect.

I also want to comment on what the judge ruled (I was personally in court). The judge ruled in favor of Pappas remaining open because no one, not even the county Board of Supervisors, has the legal authority to close down any regional school district. The supervisors clearly overstepped their bounds. Sandra Dowling, as the county Superintendent of Schools, has the legal authority to open "accommodation" schools in the Maricopa County Regional School District, as she has done. And thank God for the special services these schools provide!

I realize that there are some current and future financial challenges for our district, but that doesn't mean we can't move ahead and move up from this point on. Sandra Dowling and politics should be kept aside from our kids and their school. Our kids are being educated well, and they are receiving other much-needed services that assure they perform better in the classroom.

Do we meet all of our students' needs, and then some? You have no idea. Have you interviewed Pappas students who not only graduated from Pappas, but went on to graduate from Arizona State University?

Bottom line: Get our side of the story before expressing any more of your opinions. And leave our kids alone!
Name withheld by request

Separate is not equal: I am appalled by what I read in New Times concerning the Thomas J. Pappas School. It seems clear that the primary goal of a school, any school, is how well it is educating its students. And by any measure, even its own, Pappas is failing its students.

One of the selling points of the No Child Left Behind Act was that — given high expectations, rigorous testing and personalized academic intervention to address what these tests tell us — all children can experience academic success. Conservative educational experts told us that these standards would ensure that all children receive a high-quality education. If this is so, then why do we allow Sandra Dowling, the educational leader of our county schools, to continue to work if she truly feels that the students she teaches "cannot compete and never will compete with [those in] other schools"?

Twelve decades ago, women were not allowed to participate fully in American public schools. Six decades ago, blacks were told that being in separate schools was better for them because they would not be subject to teasing or taunting. Three decades ago, children who were disabled, blind or dealing with cerebral palsy were told it was for their own good that they weren't allowed in "normal" classrooms.

Now Dowling tells us that poor children need to be protected, to be separated from other kids because "if they weren't in our school, they would never stand a chance."

This argument then, as now, is easily refuted by the scores of poverty-stricken young people in school districts throughout Arizona who are succeeding just fine (thank you very much!) in schools where they are treated as normal kids just like everyone else.
Pat Goodman, Phoenix

Not a cheerful giver: An "A" for your Pappas story. I've been drinking the Pappas Kool-Aid for the past two years — as a mentor and as a classroom volunteer at the elementary school. I feel that education is the last priority at Pappas (my creds: B.A. in math, M.S. in education).

I return home each week frustrated, disheartened, and disbelieving. But I keep thinking "if I can help just one kid . . ." Also, as a donor, I feel robbed.
Alice Demetra, Phoenix

Or people with influence: Congratulations on a well-written, insightful article. As a current classroom aide volunteer at the Pappas School, I was riveted by every word.

You have certainly hit the nail on the head; I have had many of the same thoughts in the last three years. I only hope that people with influence (Congressman J.D. Hayworth is a regular visitor) really read your entire article and believe it.
Name withheld by request

Purse full of pork: Oh, my! You sure nailed it, but the Dowling debacle is not unique. In my 30 years of teaching I have seen such abuse, incompetence and arrogance toward our children as something all too pervasive in public education. Your remark about the lack of inquiry as to what goes on in the classroom is the heart of the matter: we assume our kids are getting an education, but the sad truth is (in many cases) if a student gets an education it is in spite of the school.

Parents wouldn't think of suing the keepers of their children, because it seems, well, cruel. But the cruelty is in the classroom, and the Dowling example, above all others, cries out for justice.

But why do Dowling, et al., do it? Because they can, and they can because nobody is looking. The Legislature has made public education into too much pork at the public purse, and it has created little fiefdoms for favorites. Washington and state houses are watched by a vigilant press corps, but local education is not. The result is that crimes against our kids continue.

Sandra Dowling's whiny excuses are typical: Students can't learn because of poverty or legislative indifference. These are bogus arguments because the indifference is Dowling's leadership. Try this analogy: A chief surgeon becomes chief because he is a skilled cutter, but people do not become principals or superintendents because they are excellent teachers. Case in point: I work at a public high school and one of the principals, who is in charge of instruction, has never taught in high school.

I thank you for your article, but someone with standing needs to push harder to make these people do what's right for the academic life of our kids, and to reveal Dowling for the fraud and arrogant autocrat she really is.
Tom Turk, Glendale

Growing up too fast: As I have been involved with the Thomas J. Pappas school for some time, I picked up my weekly New Times with added interest when I saw your cover. This interest grew significantly when I read your introductory paragraph stating that the writer served the school as a volunteer mentor. I have been a part of that program for several years. I knew at the outset that her experiences should be similar to mine

Unlike her, though, I am still an active member of that program and plan to remain involved. For that reason, I ask that you not include my name if you happen to print this letter. I don't want to risk my comments being misinterpreted by any of the many dedicated staff members whom I count as friends.

I share your assessment about the "feel good" nature of the school tours and the excitement you get from those guiding you through the facility. However, after spending a significant time there and chatting with the staff, I was struck that many of them do not share even half that level of enthusiasm. In fact, it seems as though many of the teachers and other staff really struggle with maintaining order and generally seem worn out. On the other hand, I have also encountered teachers, counselors and administrators with boundless energy and enthusiasm.

Many people probably don't realize that the normally very challenging job of teaching is compounded at Pappas by the fluctuating attendance levels in classes. Kids seems to come and go, and then subsequently reappear, at a much higher frequency than at neighborhood-based schools. This makes planning and preparing an incredible challenge for teachers.

Until your article, I never really had any facts to make an assessment of the educational achievement of the school, and I was deeply disappointed to learn that test scores indicate Pappas is not succeeding in that key area. I wholeheartedly agree with the point you make that if we don't educate children, we are in fact not really helping them. That we are just making ourselves feel better and, in a sense, moving the problem down the line. Obviously, without an education these children will not be able to break out of their current situation — which should be the ultimate goal.

Regarding the integration of these children into neighborhood schools, I have always thought that one of Pappas' primary benefits was "protecting" these kids from the ridicule they might face from their "housed" peers. However, here again, your article caused me to re-examine this issue. In fact, the possibility exists that that they might in some ways dominate less world-wise children in traditional school settings.

Your article caused me to question if Pappas is really the right solution for these children. But I do plan to stay involved with the school because I care about the students.

What I can tell you with absolute certainty is that, almost without exception, the children at Pappas are pretty amazing. They are witty, smart (definitely in a "street" sense if not always in the traditional "book" sense) and charismatic beyond their years.

My sense has always been that these personality traits have been developed in an effort to survive their circumstances. It is sort of sad to see such traits in children so young, because it indicates to me that they have been robbed of some of the wonder and joy of childhood — that is, forced to grow up too quickly.
Name withheld by request

It's a Dowling thing: You conducted an outstanding job of research into the genesis of Pappas, and in describing its demise. I worked at Pappas for four school years and five summers in the '90s as the school's mental health/"Early Intervention" specialist.

While I certainly agree with the point that (at this time) Pappas should be shut down, I grieve (and have for years) for what Pappas might have been if Sandra Dowling's heart were not 10 sizes too small.

To refer to Dowling as a "bit of a publicity hound" is akin to calling Texas "a bit of a state known for warm temperatures, an interest in football and a few oil deposits." Sandra's pathological desire for personal accolades led these schools down the path to disaster and chaos.
Margaret Kearney, Polson, Montana

Pink Yucko

She may be on to something: I agree with The Bird about all the nonsense brouhaha over the opening of the Pink Taco restaurant in Scottsdale ("Pussy Posse," June 29). Of course, Scottsdale Mayor Mary Manross is a MAN-ross for objecting to it. When any woman objects to any form of degradation of women, she is referred to as a man.

If the majority of women don't give a damn about a restaurant having such a disgusting name, then go all the way. Don't just use the nice, cutesy term of Pink Taco; just put a big actual photograph of a pussy up as advertisement to draw the customers in.

There was no reason for owner Harry Morton to change the name of the black-and-pink tops of the "hot Salsa gals"/servers. The phrase "wife-beaters" was fine. Fits our society well. Isn't the term "wife-beaters" so funny?!

Here are some suggestions of menu names: "Hot Pussy on a Platter, With Cum Sauce;" "Boobs El Grande;" "Hot Tasty Nipple Dippers;" and, instead of margaritas, how about some "margatitties"? I could write more menu suggestions, but I don't want to get too nasty.

Women (ha, ha) don't give a crap anymore, so let there be more and more establishments that degrade women. Anyone who objects to the Pink Taco, or anything of its kind, can shut up.
Cynthia Ballard, Tempe

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