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.

Billy showed up at New Arrivals several months ago. Since then he's learned the names of everyone on staff--and they've learned about him. Teachers around the building affectionately refer to him as "the school's student." Since specific details about the first-grader's background are confidential, it's unclear where his homeless family is sheltered, when he'll be moved again, or why sometimes he lashes out and other times cuddles up to authority like a helpless stray. Everyone on staff is all too aware that Billy is a special case in a small sea of special cases--a kid who probably never would've made it to school, let alone had a chance of making it once he got there, if it weren't for New Arrivals. When he first arrived, St. Paul's director of special education visited New Arrivals on several occasions to track Billy's mood swings and try to decipher his learning disability. Within weeks, a spot opened up in one of the school district's special programs--in a "resource room" where Billy could work one-on-one with specially trained psychologists and teachers. But then Billy's homeless mother moved out of the district to live with friends. In the few weeks before they moved back into the district, the resource room had filled to capacity. If all goes well, if Billy's family finds a place to stay in St. Paul, another space will open up next fall. Until then, Holt and company are back on watch.

Some teachers wonder whether Billy's mother drank during her pregnancy. Others see signs of autism. For whatever reason, one day the blond bomb is nearly comatose, stumbling sleepily from task to task, his chubby cheeks flushed red. The next day he's manic, babbling non sequiturs and in need of constant attention. When his teacher, Laura Splinter, doesn't have time to devote to Billy, Gore grabs the slack. Sometimes he'll move Billy to another classroom where a third-grade or fifth-grade teacher will try to calm him with a coloring book. When Billy loses patience, usually in a matter of minutes, Gore shuttles him back to Splinter. Often times the first person visitors to New Arrivals see is Billy, meditating quietly outside of Holt's office. On the worst days, when he comes to school without taking medication for his hyperactivity, they'll see his eyes are stormy, his limbs a spastic flurry. No matter where he is, though, he's grinning, with his tongue stuck through the gap left by a missing tooth. Not because he thinks he's getting away with anything. He grins because he likes you. He grins because he doesn't know.

To be sure, Billy's is an extreme case. Still, fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Tom Altman says, "99 out of 100" of the students at New Arrivals come through the doors with a busload of baggage. Altman, who spent seven years learning the ropes at an inner-city school in Houston, says he wastes less time disciplining kids at New Arrivals than he did in Texas, where kids were more apt to have homes. Troubled homes, for sure, but homes all the same. At New Arrivals he spends most of his time just trying to crack the protective, callused shells students form in response to the extreme poverty, physical abuse, and emotional neglect that marks their lives. "I have to make sure things are OK at home, make sure things are OK since the last move. Or I'll ask how a sibling is doing in a classroom down the hall." Whatever it takes, he says, and then some.

"I went to a funeral on Thursday night for one of our students whose 5-month-old brother died," Laura Splinter says after school one day, her voice breaking up. "So the child comes to school the next day, and the first thing they said was, 'Oh, guess what? My brother just died.' And so you've got a child whose brother just died who shows up for school, who doesn't have the family support at home, whose family isn't functioning well the way it is. We spend a lot of time on stuff like that. Whether or not it takes away from the academics, it's something they need. If they can't get beyond that point, the academics aren't going to come at all for them."

"These kids have no control at home," Altman agrees. He and Splinter are close friends, and often trade ideas on how to reach out to their students. "They have no bedroom. They have no bed. They don't have their own dishes. They don't have their own pencils. They don't control anything. Before I discipline a kid, I give them a choice--maybe a 10-second count, just so they have a choice."

To watch Altman teach is to view a work in progress. His class has been small most of the year, usually no more than 10 students. Other teachers in the building are working with 20 or more at a time. He says this gives him an unfair advantage, modestly insisting he's been blessed with a "good batch." While he's juggling the roles of teacher, surrogate father, and friend, though, you realize Altman is one of those rare educators who can balance fairness with firmness, high expectations with compassion. In a classroom where there are always students coming and going, he manages to keep the exceptional kids connected and the at-risk kids caught up. He hands out candy when kids turn in their homework, gives prizes to praise good behavior. He lets his kids laugh at him when he makes a mistake, but never lets them laugh at each other. He's developed a repertoire of tricks that, for whatever reason in whatever situation, break the tension and remind each student they're all in this together. When a kid gets bogged down in a math problem, for instance, Altman drops everything and slowly counts to three. On the final number the class shouts in unison, "I'm melting!"

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