[Hpn] Debate Weighs Merits of Schools for Homeless

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Wed, 19 Sep 2001 12:44:38 -0700

September 19, 2001

Debate Weighs Merits of Schools for Homeless


TEMPE, Ariz.  After reading his class a book called "Alexander and the
Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," Jeff Bequeaith asked students to
write about their own very bad day. Daniel, a sixth grader, recalled a
morning he rose to find no clothes in his closet and no food for breakfast.
Then he missed the bus for school.

"That was a very bad day," he wrote.

Such days are not uncommon here at the Thomas J. Pappas School. Opened in a
shelter for the homeless 11 years ago to serve eight children, the school
has grown to become the largest of its kind in the United States, with as
many as 500 children in kindergarten through 12th grade who attend classes
at two sites in downtown Phoenix and a third that opened just last month
here in Tempe. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, a
nonprofit organization based in Washington, estimates that about 40 schools
for homeless children are operating in 19 states.

But just as Pappas and the others have grown, so has opposition to their
mission. Groups working to fight causes of homelessness condemn their
approach as an inadequate way to provide quality public education to
children whose lives are destabilized by poverty, itinerant parents and low

"It's putting a Band-Aid on a situation and making it worse," said Barbara
Duffield, director of education for the National Coalition for the Homeless,
another Washington- based nonprofit group, which supports the integration of
homeless children in mainstream public schools. "The bottom line is kids are
not getting the same education they would get in a regular school
environment. It's a myth to say they are."

Defenders of schools like Pappas do not entirely disagree so long as every
other public school provides the same support that the schools for the
homeless do, like meals, clean clothes, medical attention, school supplies,
daily transportation to ever-changing residences, birthday gifts and hugs
from the teacher.

But even critics of Pappas-style schools concede that not every mainstream
public school has that ability, which fuels a continuing debate: Which
setting provides a greater overall benefit to a homeless child? Despite
passions on both sides, the answer is not clear.

Pappas's defenders here describe it as the ultimate fulfillment of federal
legislation passed in 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act,
which protects the right of homeless children to attend public school and
provides grants to hundreds of public schools for the extra services
homeless children need.

"It is, by far, an absolutely stellar educational opportunity for these
children," said Sandra E. Dowling, the superintendent of Maricopa County
Schools for nearly 14 years and the driving force behind Pappas as the best
way to solve problems inherent to homeless children. "Without it, they would
not only be homeless but also hopeless."

Through the 1990's, educators in a growing number of places, including
Charlotte, N.C., and Chicago as well as Maricopa County, the nation's fifth
largest in land mass, set up schools like Pappas to address the needs and
circumstances of homeless children. Many do not have clean clothes or enough
food. They cannot always get to school, and when their parents move from one
temporary residence to another, it can take weeks or even months before the
children return to a classroom.

Worse, say supporters of schools for homeless children, like Ms. Dowling,
sending the children to mainstream schools often stunts their psychological
development and lowers their self-esteem by exposing them to the taunts and
teasing of classmates over obvious signs of poverty, like wearing the same
outfit two days in a row.

"Kids there act different," said Michael Curieo, 12, a classmate of Daniel's
who transferred to the Pappas school this year when his family lost its
home. "They laugh at you if you're poor."

Organizations that fight homelessness say officials in school districts with
schools for homeless children do not always tell parents that federal law
gives them the right to keep their children in the same mainstream school
even if they change residences. Further, they say, classroom jokes are a
small price to pay for the superior level of education available in
mainstream public schools.

Advocates like Ms. Duffield and Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the
National Law Center, say schools for homeless children are effectively no
different than those that operated before civil rights laws were passed four
decades ago, delivering separate but unequal education.

"Sometimes their intentions are good, and Pappas is the most sophisticated
of these schools," Ms. Foscarinis said. "But test scores show that kids at
the Pappas School do not do as well as kids attending public schools in
other low-income neighborhoods, and for us, that's the bottom line."

Defenders of the Pappas approach say homeless children can maximize their
learning potential in a nonjudgmental atmosphere, and with buses that travel
across the district, children can remain at the school even as their parents
move from place to place. If their home lives stabilize, children are moved
back into a mainstream school.

"We're less interested in standardized test scores than gap-reduction
analysis," Ms. Dowling said. "If we get a sixth-grade kid with a first-
grade reading level, and in four months that kid is reading at a
fourth-grade level, then we're doing our job."

Opponents contend that the trend of creating schools like Pappas has ended
and that a reverse pattern is emerging.

"We appreciate what Pappas is doing," said Ms. Foscarinis of the National
Law Center. "But what we're asking for is a situation where schools provide
all the services homeless kids need and a quality education. By law, that's
what they're entitled to."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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