30 OCTOBER 2001

An example of good news hitting the newspaper headlines ...

Phoenix school tackles task of teaching homeless

It's parent-teacher conference day here at the Thomas J. Pappas School and, happily for director Ernalee Phelps, things are more hectic than usual.

Phelps remembers when parents didn't bother to attend these meetings.  "Once we decided to feed them and hold a raffle, 500 people showed up," said Phelps, research development director for the school.

If it seems odd that a school would have to resort to bribes of food and prizes to get parents to come in and discuss their children's education and future, consider this: These families are homeless. Not only don't they have houses, few have transportation, most are hungry and nearly all need medical or psychiatric care.

This is the Thomas J. Pappas School, the nation's largest public school just for homeless youngsters. The sprawling 12-year-old school in downtown Phoenix and a much smaller branch that opened in August in nearby Tempe serve homeless children from across Maricopa County.

It's a school where the first order of business for new pupils -- before getting a class schedule, before meeting their teachers -- is to take a "hygiene shower," use deodorant, get their heads deloused, visit the school's clothing room and "shoe store," and get a medical checkup.

Eleven buses roam the county for a total of 500 miles each morning, stopping at likely locations to find school-age homeless children -- street corners, shelters, abandoned buildings, vacant lots. Some children spend at least two hours on the bus before they arrive at the school. Once there, the new pupils go to the clothing room and are allowed to choose two outfits, along with three pairs of socks and underwear. There also are belts and hats. The clothes that they've worn into the school, if they're salvageable at all, are put into the school's washer and dryer.

There's another shelf full of blankets, pillows and alarm clocks for youths to take with them.

Everything is donated; boxes arrive daily. More than 300 community residents and workers serve as mentors for the pupils; a local bank gives each of its employees an extra "lunch hour" each week to volunteer at the school.

"This is a wonderful community," Phelps said.

The children could go to regular public school in their neighborhoods, wherever their neighborhoods happen to be at the moment. In fact, Pappas -- and the few others like it -- have been controversial among some educators and homeless advocates who believe that homeless children would receive a better education in mainstream schools. Congressional hearings were held this year to decide if federal funds should be used for such schools.

But the Pappas philosophy has prevailed. They believe that the school with its "Welcome Center" and services designed specifically for homeless children is better able to handle the peculiar problems these children pose.

"Homelessness is a crisis," Phelps said. "But ... these kids live with a whole lot more than homelessness."

Volunteer doctors and nurses give pupils shots and treat them for staph infections, asthma, scabies, heart murmurs and general neglect by their parents. Medications are administered only at school; they can't be sent to their families, where parents may steal, sell or use them.

There also are psychological problems to deal with. "We have families with multiple social challenges," school nurse Eileen Smith said. "Our doctors will spend up to two hours [with each pupil]. We don't just try to whip them in and out."

The school holds monthly birthday parties; every child with a birthday during the month goes to the toy closet and chooses a brand new gift. Children who don't know their birthdays are assigned one.

One day a month, children leave the school carrying a cardboard beer case packed with cans and boxes of food.

"We are not enablers," Phelps said. "We do not give food out to anyone who wants it anytime they want it, because then we are encouraging them to stay where they are. ... Parents need to go out and support their families."

The school is open at night for parents who want to learn to read or work on their GED.

The unique needs of homeless families make the school expensive to run, Phelps said. Though it's a public school run by the county school, it could not exist on local funds alone.  The school receives $850,000, or about two-thirds of its budget, from federal funds. And at Pappas, there's no angst about school commercialism. Rooms are "adopted" by corporations; their logos appear on classroom doors.

New library books are donated by publishers. Fund-raisers for the school are held year-round. The school was named after a widely admired Phoenix resident who was active in politics and charities. He died of a heart attack in 1989 at age 49 while dancing at his high school reunion. His popularity, according to district Superintendent Sandra E. Dowling, has helped raise funds for the school.

And the school's clientele keeps growing. Though on any given day it's difficult to determine attendance, classrooms are usually crowded. With 25 to 30 children in a classroom, on average, "We're way over capacity," Dowling said.

That's the teachers' biggest complaint, Dowling added, but Pappas still attracts more job applicants than most schools -- directors make sure the salaries are among the highest in the county.

Pappas now holds about 800 pupils in kindergarten through 12th grade per year. By the end of this year, 3,000 youngsters are expected to go through its doors. Many of the children are from colder-weather states to the north and east of Arizona; but homeless families come from across the nation to Phoenix, where sleeping outdoors is possible for most of the year, and the climate makes job-hunting easier.

Because Pappas is a public school, it offers standard courses and pupils must take mandated tests. That's a change from the originally proposed curriculum, which Dowling characterized as "a lovey-huggy-touchy-feely program with no academic component."

Still, the school's test scores "are dismal," Dowling said. "We cannot compete and will never compete with other schools."

Pre-testing and post-testing of individual pupils often shows improvement, Dowling said, but performance "just depends on the mood of the kid that day. He may have seen his mom battered that morning."

On a sunny Friday morning, children in a fourth-grade classroom are sitting on the floor and inventing stories to be written on blank pages in a book that contains only pictures. A boy named Edgar shows off the cover he's created for his book. But first, he holds up the back cover, which is covered with angry black scrawls.

"I didn't have my medication then," he said. He flips the book over to display the front cover, decorated with half-moons, stars and suns.

"This is when I was happy."


By Jane Elizabeth, Post-Gazette Education Writer






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