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.

Like other teachers who've been through the year at New Arrivals, Altman believes he's got, at most, two weeks to get through to a kid. After that it could be too late. The student might be transferred out to another school or, more often, his family might flee the district in search of shelter. He treats those 10 days as if they're the only days his students will ever have a shot at making it in school. Altman's greatest challenge rolled into New Arrivals last fall. William was a street-smart black kid, jaded beyond his years, who'd be damned to take directions from some 31-year-old white boy. No matter Altman's tack, it failed. After a week in the classroom, the rift between them seemed irreparable. William, popular among his classmates, literally started running the class. When Altman disciplined a student William would stand erect and yell the word "victim." His classmates turned into the volunteer chorus.

Altman remembers coming home every night exhausted during those weeks. Every day he'd tell William how smart he was, not only because Altman hoped it would ingratiate him to the boy, but because he was smart. Too smart. Then it happened. Altman saw daylight and sprinted. "He came in one day with an extra sandwich for breakfast," Altman remembers. "I said, 'What's going on? You have a sandwich and you're in a good mood now?' And he said, 'Yeah, I just need a sandwich every morning.' He had a really good day that day. The next morning I had a deli sandwich waiting for him. It became a joke between us. For four and a half months he had a sandwich or a treat waiting for him every single day. That's all it took." Before William was transferred out of New Arrivals in February he became Altman's class monitor.

On other days, Altman just tries to remember where his kids live and what they live with. When Elaine came to New Arrivals a little over a month ago, she was painfully shy. The tall, skin-and-bones sixth-grader never looked up, never spoke loud enough to be heard. With no enthusiasm for learning, she often spent whole afternoons daydreaming at her desk. In the middle of a haphazard softball game one day during gym class, one of Altman's students slid full force into Elaine, who was playing first base. She hit the ground and stayed down. Altman ran to her side, crouched and grabbed her hand. Then he just waited. For a full 15 minutes, Elaine just hung on to him, tight. Nobody needed to move. Nothing else needed to be done. Time could stop if it had to.

For the rest of the day Elaine held her arm gingerly and pouted, refusing to take part in class. Altman would offhandedly ask how she was doing, but didn't give it too much attention--no soothing, but no scolding for slacking off. As she bussed back to a women's shelter that night to stay with her mother, Elaine cradled her arm as if it were broken. The next day, though, she acted as if the accident had never happened. And for the first time since coming to New Arrivals she started to giggle with her classmates, raise her hand in class, and talk out loud. Later, Elaine's mother, Ricky, says that the oldest of her three children had never looked forward to school, never cared to study, never made friends, until that day. Ricky tells the story in halting sentences, her voice barely audible above the low hum of an air conditioner stuck into the window of her shelter's rec room. Her arms are crossed tightly across her chest. Like mother, like daughter.

"It scares me when I have to send my daughter to a place I don't know," she says finally. "But that teacher's so nice. I think I can trust him. She's making friends. She's laughing again."

"What if home were a series of emergency shelters? Now imagine that you are 8 years old and trying to keep up in school. The New Arrivals School in St. Paul effectively deals with those situations every day. That's why parents persuaded St. Paul school board members this week to keep the program open for a second year."

--Star Tribune editorial, April 30, 1998

After a committee meeting of the St. Paul School Board on April 27, New Arrivals teaching assistant Joan Resner circled the room, extending her hand and her thanks to friends and strangers alike. The tears in her eyes were one part joy, two parts relief. The waiting, it seemed, was over.

Just three weeks earlier, Superintendent Gaines had asked the full school board to close New Arrivals. At that meeting, a contingent of more than 50 students, teachers, advocates, and parents turned out to testify. They argued that the school was well worth its $800,000 budget. They stressed that the program didn't segregate or ostracize kids, that it makes them want to learn. In what would become a pattern, the board decided not to decide. Instead it asked Assistant Superintendent Yusten to come up with alternative ways to help homeless kids become part of the St. Paul school system. He promised to come up with a contingency plan.

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