'Focused on what we need'
The Pappas School in Phoenix caters specifically to homeless students - and helps other educators cope with this growing segment.
Perhaps never before has so much attention been paid to groups of students once largely overlooked. Minority students, students in special education classes, students with limited English skills, chronic truants - the requirements of the No Child Left Behind federal education law today make it much harder for schools to ignore their particular needs. The good news is that school reforms are shining a new light on needs like theirs. The bad news is that too few schools are able to deal effectively with them. Over the next three weeks we will take a look at some of the children on the margins. We'll examine some hopeful solutions emerging to counter the problems they face - and measure the considerable ground still to be covered before our schools will truly be able to boast that they are leaving no children behind.Skip to next paragraph
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Homelessness can't put up many barriers to education that the Thomas J. Pappas School hasn't anticipated. The buses for its three campuses in Phoenix and Tempe change routes as often as students change locations - daily.
At the elementary school in Phoenix - the flagship campus - the clothing room is nicknamed The Gap. Students can "shop" here once a month (or anytime they're in need) for new underwear and socks, gently worn clothes, and warm blankets. Down the hall there's a clinic, for everything from a morning shower to a visit to the dentist. And just off the cafeteria there are two special rooms: one filled with donated toys and stuffed animals, where children pick a gift for their birthday; the other stocked with food to take in the evening.
"I move around a lot, that's kind of why I come here," says Danielle Bradshaw, a sprightly sixth-grader at the middle school. "Every time we move we end up losing our stuff, so I come here and they help me get different stuff."
When a tutoring program outgrew its space at a homeless shelter, Sandra Dowling, the Maricopa County school superintendent, started the Pappas School in 1990. It now serves about 1,000 students and is raising money to build a new facility for grades 7 through 12. Some children come to the school year after year, but officials say most stay just a few months, until they transition into another local school or move out of the region.
Pappas is a place where the needs of homeless children come into sharp focus. And the ranks of these children appear to be growing. The US Conference of Mayors surveyed 27 cities, for instance, and found that requests for emergency shelter for families with children were up about 7 percent last year. Such families make up 40 percent of the cities' homeless populations.
But visiting educators who come to see Pappas in action have to find a way to apply its practices in regular public schools; starting schools solely for homeless children is no longer allowed under federal law.
In the 1990s, the US had at least 40 such schools, many of them housed in shelters. Districts sometimes required families in shelters to enroll their children in the on-site schools. But advocates for homeless students charged that these programs were separate and unequal.
"The vast majority didn't provide the same level of education or extracurriculars," says Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) in Minneapolis. "The public schools, rather than taking [children] in and removing barriers, were creating dumping grounds."
The Pappas School was considered better than the bulk of these separate programs, but its academic quality was questioned as well. In testimony before a congressional committee in 2000, Luisa Stark, chair of the Phoenix Consortium to End Homelessness, criticized Pappas for low test scores, compared with those of homeless students integrated into other Arizona schools.