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.

As of 1996, Holt--a lifelong educator who holds a doctorate in special-education administration--had already served for seven years as a consultant to Minnesota's Department of Children, Families and Learning. That fall, he decided it was time to get away from the desk and back into the mix, and accepted a position as interim principal at an elementary school in Mounds Park. Less than a year later, Assistant Superintendent Yusten called to say they'd found him an adventure: heading up an on-the-fly skills center for kids new to St. Paul. The original concept, according to both Yusten and Holt, was to shuffle all transitory elementary students through New Arrivals in no more than 30 days. Kids coming into the school district would be tested, a "learner profile" would be written, and then they'd be shipped off, in Yusten's words, to "a regular school." Before things got off the ground, though, Holt pointed out that more than 3,000 students are new to St. Paul every school year. The skills center couldn't be expected to properly evaluate all of those kids--especially at St. Casimir, the old Catholic high school the school district rents to house New Arrivals from 8 to 5. Besides lacking handicap access, the underequipped, run-down building can house only 100 to 150 students at a time.

To lighten the load, Holt worked with Yusten to redesign the school's mission. By the first day of school on September 2, 1997, New Arrivals had morphed from a testing center into a kind of temporary school, unique locally and nationally. Initially, Oertwig says, neither his colleagues on the school board nor Superintendent Gaines paid the school much mind. New Arrivals, after all, would still be a way station at the service of parents and kids new to town. There was, however, a key difference. In the mission statement Holt helped compose, two groups were singled out for attention: parents "identified as homeless" or participating in a shelter program, and children about to be placed in foster care.

Within weeks, and with little fanfare, New Arrivals became known around town as "the homeless school"--a place where compassionate teachers and a saintly principal actually understood what it means to be down and out. Brian Gallagher, an academic assessor for St. Paul schools who's placed dozens of kids at New Arrivals, sums up the metamorphosis succinctly: "I think this thing happened by accident."

Michael Dvorak

Because many of New Arrivals' students move with their parents from shelter to shelter around the city--one night here, the next night there--attendance at school fluctuates radically. Kids aren't even allowed to bring their school books out of the building since they might not be back the following day. From week to week, though, the school educates an average of 90 to 120 students. Principal Holt says a majority of them come from poverty-stricken environs, where school supplies, clean clothes, and self-esteem are hard to come by. As a reflection of St. Paul's low-income demographics, a majority of students at New Arrivals are kids of color--Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Hmong, and, more than any other group, African American. "The most important thing about this school is that self-esteem isn't an issue," Holt says. "It's OK to talk about where you're from. It's OK to be different. Still, I don't know what the magic is here. In part it's a highly motivated, student-centered staff; from our cook to our janitor to our youngest TAs. But I'm not sure you could transfer this and have the same results. With a different staff and a different building, I don't know that we could do it again."

The school is an experiment, after all--one Holt tinkered with even before New Arrivals opened its door. Eventually, he figured, the powers that be would take notice, and make a move to end the school's trial run. Sure enough, in March Holt was informed that New Arrivals was slated to be closed--its classrooms cleaned out, its lights turned off, its doors shut and locked. He fought against the administration's decision, and in late April it looked like he'd won a second chance and another year for the school and its students. A short two weeks later, word came down that New Arrivals was history, again.

"I get these snack attacks," he said one day at the end of May, just before school let out for the summer. "The other night I woke up, ate a peanut-butter sandwich, and watched it rain at 2:30 a.m. I felt powerless. It's like losing a good friend. You don't blame anybody, you just say it's a fact. You grieve and move on."

Billy is on the loose. Walkie-talkie buzzing static in his hand, educational assistant Paul Gore comes jogging into the front office at New Arrivals to catch his breath.

"Have you seen Billy?" he asks the secretary.

She just smiles and barely looks up from her hand-me-down Apple computer.

"Not in the last hour or two."

Gore runs a quick pan around the office and trots off toward the gym. "What would we do without Billy?" the secretary says to no one in particular, chuckling as she watches Gore go. The question, as everybody around the school knows, is a rhetorical one.

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