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.

On the last day of school, just as they've done at 2:30 p.m. on every other weekday this year, teachers and principal join to walk New Arrivals' students out the front door. Together they pause on the front steps, making sure the children find their way to the right bus or cab idling at the curb.

As always, there's a flurry of screaming kids, their unlaced high-tops slapping the pavement as they jump the steps. Some wander aimlessly up and down the sidewalk until a teacher escorts them toward the appropriate bus. Some seek out their younger brothers and sisters, taking charge as only an older sibling can. Others, like Cheryl, search the crowd for another adult to hug goodbye. Eventually the boulevard clears and the four yellow school buses depart, their passengers waving frantically. Some teachers are laughing, others crying as they wave back. All of them are surfing an emotional wave. Not because school is at last out for the summer, but because, just two days earlier, New Arrivals was spared--again. The day after pocketing their pink slips, staff members at New Arrivals were sent a memo informing them the school would stay open for one more year--no changes, no gimmicks. Promise. George Holt will be principal once more, and most of the school's students will again come from homeless shelters and foster homes throughout the city. According to Assistant Superintendent Yusten, in a last-minute meeting between board chair Thornton Phillips and Superintendent Gaines on June 2, it was decided the board's motion on April 27 was too confusing to be binding. They also acknowledged that the board's disagreement over New Arrivals' fate was sincere, and hadn't yet been solved. One of the most vocal board members, Al Oertwig, says Gaines and Yusten struck the eleventh-hour agreement to stem pressure from local advocates and to avoid further scrutiny by the press. It was, he suggested, a move made partly out of the desire for good public relations. Either way, what Thornton Phillips and Gaines essentially did was decide not to decide again. And so the school will stay open for another year, a study will be commissioned by the school board to determine whether students at New Arrivals are making the grade academically, and its destiny will be debated once more next spring. Not the end of the story, but at least the second chapter of it written.

New Arrivals' staff, it seems, have learned their lesson: Celebrate, but don't be fooled into thinking their school is in the clear. Still, they're relieved, if only temporarily--a kind of transient happiness that runs through the building after the students have cleared out their few belongings and gone. Will the board change its mind again? Should they undo their packing? Will everyone really be hired back? They don't know, and--at least for today--don't care to guess.

As the last bus drives out of sight, George Holt fiddles with his walkie-talkie, trying to tune in on a clear signal, then dashes back into the school. He has other problems to worry about. Billy is sitting alone in front of the principal's office. His mother called and left a message an hour ago: Tell Billy to walk to a nearby park and she'll pick him up later.

"Walk to a nearby park?" one teacher asks sarcastically. "This kid can't get to the bathroom without getting lost."

After a moment of deliberation, Holt phones the St. Paul police and asks them to escort Billy to wherever he's staying. If there's a place at all. So on the last day of school, after all but a few teachers have left, Billy is hopping down an empty hallway at New Arrivals. Holt leads the way, his hand wrapped around the young boy's. A uniformed cop brings up the rear. Billy is grinning.

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