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.

Oertwig believes Gaines and Yusten were ill-prepared that night because they didn't think anyone would show up to protest shutting down the fledgling school. They didn't count on a meeting room full of homeless parents and shelter advocates. They didn't think the New Arrivals staff would show up to fight for their jobs. They didn't think the kids cared. And in that, says Oertwig, they were wrong. In the past two months New Arrivals has been declared dead, resurrected, and again placed on the chopping block--causing the kind of chaotic limbo inside the school's walls that its students are all too familiar with in their short, unpredictable lives. Staff members have been told they could count on coming back next fall, then been handed pink slips; told to pack up, then asked to stay. The Star Tribune and WCCO-TV have reported the school's salvation and penned editorials trumpeting St. Paul's vision, then been compelled to change the story. New Arrivals' principal has been driven to distraction. The school board has been tripping over itself in an effort to please its adamant superintendent. Advocates have been working the phones at all hours, begging school board members not to pull the plug. Even the students at New Arrivals, ages 4 to 10, have joined the fray, writing essays about how much they love their teachers, how crucial it is to have a place to call home.

On this unseasonably muggy day in mid-May, though, Beth doesn't have the energy to work herself up over a bunch of bumbling bureaucrats. They make her mad, sure. But she figures the turmoil is par for the course. It's hard enough trying to quiet her own fears--about her kids' future, about her own tomorrow. The system will have to wait. After an hour spent dredging up haunting memories, she just wants to spend some time unwinding with her family. So while the sun sets behind St. Paul's miniature skyline, Beth heads out back to shoot hoops with a group of kids from the shelter. After throwing up a few two-handed layups she lifts the smooth, worn leather ball--a world in her palm--above her head. A trio of little boys instantly gathers at her knees, jumping about and begging for a pass. She glances down at them, and a dozen hard years disappear from her face. A mischievous smile crinkles her nose and throws a quick light off the whites of her eyes. She bounces the ball to the boy wearing a faded Bulls jersey, and cheers as he heaves it into the dusk.

Michael Dvorak

In this story, the villainy is free-floating, faceless. There's no one person or agenda to blame, no sinister motives, no smoking guns or buried bodies. In St. Paul, as in any city across the country, public education has become a public drama. Pennies must be pinched. Flexible rules turn rigid. Debate stifles under the weight of swelling class sizes and teacher burnout. And while the chronic bouts of miscommunication and bureaucratic hand-wringing that have threatened to short-circuit New Arrivals in the past year appear almost criminal to its staff, students, and parents, those responsible are more Curly and Moe than Bonnie and Clyde. On the other hand, the heroes and heroines are easy to cast.

The 17 teachers, teacher's aides, and teaching assistants at New Arrivals were recruited because they know how to get through to kids--attention-starved, street-hardened, spirited kids, many with learning disabilities, who will either make the grade here or not at all. They are, simply put, the big people little people like Beth's daughter Cynthia can't wait to see when they get off the bus every morning at 7:45 a.m. When one of her students throws a tantrum or deliberately slices up her skin like pink confetti, first-grade teacher Laura Splinter loses sleep trying to figure out why, and what to do. "You're not just their teacher. You're their mother, their nurse, their social worker, their counselor." Every time one of her students is transferred out or shuffled between shelters, teaching assistant Joan Resner finds herself dreaming her fears. "People need to understand, these kids aren't going to make it in a mainstream school. They'd be buried." When the school's social worker enrolls a new student, she sits down with his parent, his guardians, whoever's around to raise the child--assuring them that no matter what trouble waits outside the school's walls, students are treated with dignity here. New Arrivals' cook keeps her kitchen open all day. Secretary Betty Thissen works the phones like a dispatcher, making sure every student has a ride to their hotel or shelter or relative's house--even if they moved the night before, even if it means calling a cab to drive children to addresses that change too fast to memorize.

And then there's Dr. George Holt, a principal one local social worker calls "almost too good to be true." The only male staffer at the school not in jeans or khakis, the gray-headed Holt wears his white dress shirt and tie like a uniform, jangling his massive key ring that seems to hold a solution to every lock in the place. When he walks the halls--and he's always walking the halls--he carries a walkie-talkie so he's never out of touch. When a student seems lost or is acting out, he simply holds out a broad hand or whispers something in her ear. No one else knows what secret passes between them, but it works.

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