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.

When Yusten presented this plan on April 27 he faced a smaller crowd. Still, the room was alive with tension. Students from New Arrivals squirmed in the front row. Anxious parents sat next to anxious teachers. Irritated homeless advocates lined the back wall. Reporters were predicting a blowup, with one cameraman shooting close-in footage for that night's broadcast. Sheepishly, almost apologetically, Yusten repeated the administration's desire to close New Arrivals. Besides citing budget concerns, he argued that kids at New Arrivals weren't being properly prepared to move into a mainstream school. They were getting stuck, he said, and segregated. This, he argued, ran contrary to the original spirit of New Arrivals. Instead of running a homeless school, Yusten said the district could and should demand that all teachers in all schools familiarize themselves with the harsh realities of homelessness. "These children are fragile," he admitted in passing. The committee appeared unimpressed, and expressed doubt that a system-wide renaissance could be realized by the fall.

With that, the crowd sensed that the school still had a last-ditch hope. One after another, the school's supporters spoke out. Paul Gore, fresh off another day spent chasing Billy, questioned whether the kids at New Arrivals could "strive and survive" in a mainstream school. Eddie Marcus, a homeless advocate from St. Paul, prayed the board wouldn't get hung up on the price tag. New Arrivals secretary Betty Thissen pleaded for one more year. Women's advocate Patricia Banks pointed out that she'd been dead-set against the program until she spent some time watching it work. Principal Holt just talked about the magic. Whatever opening Yusten thought he had narrowed when Dr. Mary Thornton Phillips, chair of the St. Paul School Board, stood up and spoke passionately about her recent visit to New Arrivals. She praised the one-to-one attention. She questioned whether the school district could teach all of its teachers the rare compassion she witnessed at New Arrivals. "I'd hate to see this school shut down too soon," she said. "I saw hand-holding. I saw teachers putting arms around their students. I saw a loving touch. That's just what's done. It's what the students expect." If Thornton Phillips had been up for re-election, the crowd would've handed out campaign buttons.

An hour later, the committee voted to keep New Arrivals open for one more year. No more, no less. The motion passed with only one dissenting voice. But two weeks later--after press coverage died down and the school's champions relaxed--Yusten and several members of the school board, including Thornton Phillips, turned sail. They put forward the position that the crowd that night hadn't been listening. That reporters had gotten the story wrong. That New Arrivals would not, in fact, be open for schooling in the fall.

"The motion at that meeting was to keep New Arrivals open for another year under the original concept," Yusten argued, with a stress on the word "original." That means, he said, New Arrivals would return to its primary mission as a "skills center" all elementary students new to St. Paul would attend briefly for testing before being transferred elsewhere. That doesn't mean, he then said, that New Arrivals will remain a school for homeless kids.

To set Yusten's interpretation in stone, the administration reclassified New Arrivals in its proposed budget for the 1998-99 school year. Instead of falling within the domain of a division called Teaching and Learning, which is under Yusten's charge, the school was to be watched over by staff working in Accountability, Technology and Support Services. This line-item shift guaranteed that no student would be able to stay at New Arrivals for more than a few weeks tops. It also made clear that no principal would be needed. Yusten told Holt he could expect to be transferred.

Word of these behind-the-scenes maneuvers filtered back to staff at New Arrivals in mid-May. For the first time teachers started calling in sick, packing up their classrooms, emptying their desks. They felt lied to, cut loose without so much as a farewell. "I can't say anything intelligent because basically I think the administration is stocked with a bunch of assholes," one teaching assistant said between classes. "They felt some pressure, said what they needed to say, then screwed us."

When he caught wind that the New Arrivals staff felt cheated, Yusten fell back on the argument that first fueled the debate: Because New Arrivals serves lower-income kids, and because a disproportionate number of those in poverty are not white, the school is considered by some to threaten the spirit of desegregation. "We don't want to promote concentration of class or race," Yusten said, more relaxed and sure talking on the phone from his office. "If [a school district] has a desegregation policy in place, you can qualify for desegregation funding. We get $20 million a year from the state. We could potentially lose a great deal of that money." During the last week of May, Betty Thissen started making phone calls from her desk outside of Principal Holt's office. When she got hold of Gilbert de la Ho and told him Holt was being transferred, she says the board member told her they'd all been "hoodwinked." When she reached board member Oertwig, he advised her to involve the press. The budget hadn't been given a final stamp of approval, he said. The fight for New Arrivals wasn't over.

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