Class Dismissed

For kids caught between shelters and the street, the New Arrivals school has been a refuge from hunger, violence, and loneliness. Try telling that to the St. Paul School Board.

Looking out through the windows of the school bus, it's hard to tell whether the Eagle's Nest Women's Shelter is a prison, an asylum, or a refuge. The two-story building--long and narrow, its red brick refurbished seven years ago--looms over a quiet corner just a few blocks from downtown St. Paul. A sturdy chain-link fence, with a wide gate that locks at dusk, surrounds the manicured lawn. Wire weaves through steel window bars and a rusty security phone hangs outside the front door fashioned from thick glass and steel. There's rarely anyone outside on the steps. When there is, they're usually wearing an ID badge and smoking a cigarette. Since Eagle's Nest is one of the last stops on today's after-school route, when 7-year-old Cynthia and her 4-year-old sister Kristen hop off the bus they leave behind only a few classmates, the tops of their bobbing heads barely visible as the driver pulls away from the curb. After a last wave goodbye, the two skip down the cracked sidewalk, slip through the gate, and wait to be buzzed into the foyer of the shelter.

Inside, social workers hum through the wide, well-lit hallways. The first-floor rec room echoes with spirited conversation, accompanied by the canned applause of a sitcom. In a playroom down the hall kids of all ages leaf through secondhand picture books and huddle over homework with part-time tutors at the tables. In the back yard other kids play basketball or jump rope on a black-tar parking lot turned playground. Their mothers sit around picnic tables nearby. For now, for once, they're free to read or gossip or just watch their kids have fun. They might be locked in for the night, but at least the abusive fathers, boyfriends, and husbands who caused them to seek refuge here are locked out. "I watched my ma go through this," Cynthia and Kristen's mother, Beth, says. She's sitting in the playroom watching her youngest scribble in a coloring book and talking about getting beat up by a man she once loved--as if the grief were inherited, somehow expected. "So when it started I knew I had to get away. I suppose I waited too long, but I knew how it would end." After getting a divorce from her abusive husband, Beth's subsequent boyfriend started blaming her for his bad luck--using her gut as a punching bag, pinching her shoulders into a bruised map, and slapping her around until her cheeks looked sunburned. The fights always ended like they started, she remembers--shouting, slamming doors, screaming kids. "I'd like to stay here longer," Beth says, barely speaking above a whisper now. "But at least I have some time to get myself together. The most important thing is that I keep my kids separated from this." Her gray eyes are dry and distant. The bruises and broken nose have healed, but her 25-year-old face is scarred by deep wrinkles. "I hope I can leave them in their new school, even after I leave here. They just love that school. That place protects kids like mine. And I'll tell you the truth, that's the first school that's even acknowledged we were there."

What Beth doesn't know is that the school she's raving about--the one advocates for battered women, homeless families, and neglected children can't stop praising--was never meant to be a school. The New Arrivals Skills Center in St. Paul's Phalen neighborhood was, in a sense, a fluke. It started before St. Paul School Superintendent Curman Gaines could stop it, and evaded the school board's attention for several months. In this, New Arrivals' first year, the school enrolled 349 children just like Beth's: homeless kids, foster kids, kids on the move, kids too emotionally beat-up or intellectually starved to make it in a classroom geared toward children with deeper roots.

Michael Dvorak

"Most teachers don't have a clue what these kids are going through," Suky Albert says. The director of youth programs at Eagle's Nest, she's talking about one of the many disheartening attitudes children in her shelter faced before New Arrivals opened last autumn. "A kid falls asleep in their class and they immediately conclude he's lazy. But they don't know what that kid went through last night. They don't know he might've been sleeping in the street or moving from motel to motel. At New Arrivals everyone from the principal to the teachers to the teacher's aides understands." Despite the rave reviews, and despite the school's success with kids like Beth's, New Arrivals is under siege. At a St. Paul School Board meeting on April 8, Gaines and Assistant Superintendent Cy Yusten recommended shutting down the school, claiming that the district couldn't justify its $800,000 budget when other, more basic programs were being cut back. They suggested that the school's high concentration of impoverished children, the majority of whom are children of color, runs contrary to the state Board of Education's desegregation rules. But their numbers were sketchy, and the demographic data they presented incomplete. Worse, says long-time school board member Al Oertwig, they failed to offer any sound alternatives to keeping New Arrivals open next year.

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