Sitting serenely in the back corner of Tom Altman's fifth-and-sixth-grade classroom, pencil poised, considering a blank sheet of loose-leaf paper, Valerie could just as well be posing for Norman Rockwell. Her coarse, black hair is twisted into two tasseled pigtails. Her red tennies, one untied, dangle inches above the speckled linoleum. Residual baby flesh rounds her delicate shoulders and cushions her dimpled chin. Every now and then she unconsciously sucks on her thumb--a peculiar gesture for a fifth grader, which, for that very reason, is all the more bittersweet.
In the time it takes for the lead in her pencil to break, though, Valerie's up out of her desk, scraped elbows flexed, shadowboxing with an invisible demon. "Mess with me," she snarls, the logic of her sentence fractured by a string of profanities, "Pow! Smash! Pow!"
Altman doesn't see the flare-up. He's too busy trying to corral Clifford, who has just wandered into the hall. All baggy jeans and Vikings' jersey, the sixth grader has a mother who never seems to be around. So instead of going home after class, Clifford often hangs with his sister's 18-year-old boyfriend, who, Altman suspects, is a gang-banger given to supplying his lanky, street-smart pupil with drugs. Some mornings Clifford's eyes are just droopy slits when he stumbles in for school breakfast at 8:00 a.m. Other mornings he skates a mad jag, and alternates between stupor and sending his schoolbooks flying across the room without warning. "These kids grow up with such anger," Altman explains after distracting Valerie briefly with an art project. "The smallest thing will set them off."
A year ago, Altman's room at New Arrivals--a public school in St. Paul's Phelan neighborhood--had ten students. It now has eleven. On paper, the kids share a similar situation: All but a few of them spend their nights in foster homes or in shelters for homeless families and battered women. Easily distracted, they're slow to grasp basic concepts, fast to follow bad examples set by classmates like Clifford. Some are stricken with Emotional Behavioral Disorder (Valerie's is an extreme case), a condition marked by severe social withdrawal, aggression, and confused thought processes. All of them are fragile, hardened by the streets, crippled by dysfunctional families, or denied a permanent address. In theory, New Arrivals is supposed to ease these kids' eventual transition into a "mainstream" school by introducing them to the district's curricula and reacquainting them with the daily regimen that is elementary school.
By May of last year, Altman believed he was making progress. There were dozens of hiccups a day, of course: fights in gym class, lethargy, sudden outbursts. "Be careful--these days it's easy to look back through rose-colored glasses," Altman says, warning himself as much as anyone within earshot. For every setback, though, there seemed to be a sliver of daylight. The shy girl cracking through a callused shell. The sullen toughie learning to laugh at himself. The lonely orphan grappling with her familial loss in broken, yet riveting prose. "Last year we could get to the most severe kids," Altman recalls during his 20-minute lunch break. "We can't do it this year, because we don't have the resources to bring them around."
New Arrivals Skills Center opened its doors in the fall of 1997. Initially it was to be a 30-day stop for all elementary students new to the city's public schools. After being academically tested and psychologically evaluated, these newcomers were to be placed at permanent schools in the district. But because New Arrivals was housed in the small building that used to be St. Casimir, a former Catholic high school, and could only handle 100 to 150 students at that time, it quickly became apparent that it wouldn't be possible to process every one of the thousands of St. Paul's incoming students. So, with little fanfare, New Arrivals morphed into a "special" school, as its principal, Dr. George Holt, explains, and began targeting kids identified as homeless or participating in a shelter program, along with children about to be placed in foster care.
Almost immediately, the "homeless school" was impressing advocates and activists across the Twin Cities and the nation. By the spring of 1998, though, New Arrivals had become a target for nervous administrators, who argued that the program, besides being too expensive--requiring $800,000 a year to run--was segregating, and thus ostracizing kids. In early April, then-superintendent Curman Gaines pointed out that a majority of kids at New Arrivals were African American, then asked the St. Paul school board to close the doors, citing the State Board of Education's desegregation rules. With that, the curtain opened on a two-month drama. Students, teachers, advocates, and parents passionately defended the experiment, correctly pointing out that desegregation regulations were routinely bent for special cases.
Before long the media got wind of the controversy, and began to run stories about New Arrivals' possible demise. A majority of the school board members indicated in public that they'd vote to keep the school open; then, during a series of closed-door meetings, they capitulated, citing budgetary concerns. On June 2, 72 hours before the last day of school, Altman and the 17 other teachers, teacher's aides, and teaching assistants at New Arrivals received notice that they were going to be transferred. On the last day of school, the board changed its mind again, kept staff in place, and promised to leave the school alone for at least another year.