School of Hard Knocks

After a year's reprieve, the only public school serving St. Paul's homeless children is back on the chopping block.

On that sunny day last June, as the school's 120 kids charged to their respective buses for the last time, one frazzled teacher let it be known that she didn't believe the board or the administration could be trusted. She called their eleventh-hour decision a stall tactic, a media ploy. Given what's happened over the last eight months, it seems her pessimism may have been justified. "I share some of that cynicism," school board member Al Oertwig, a steadfast advocate for New Arrivals, says. "The administration's support has not been what I would have liked to see. I don't know if it's been deliberate or mindful over the last academic year, but I worry there's been a subtle undermining of the program."

When Dr. Holt came to work last September, he was dealt the same demographic hand as the previous year (there are now 144 children at New Arrivals, a majority of whom are homeless and in need of counseling), but "not a lot of special services," he says. Hoping to keep costs at a minimum, the administration--not obligated to consult the school board when ordering staff changes--cut corners. The school nurse, a full-time worker in 1997-98, was now to be on site only one morning a week. The half-time speech teacher's position was eliminated. Instead of a half-time staff member with an expertise in working with learning disabled kids, there was none. And, according to first-grade teacher Laura Splinter, the school's full-time social worker now comes in only one or two days a week. Instead of taking time to write a "learner profile" for each student attending New Arrivals, then meeting with parents about how to handle their special needs, that social worker now barely has time to address routine discipline problems. "I'm very surprised to hear of these cuts," school board chair Dr. Mary Thornton Phillips said on the phone last week. "No one informed the board of the changes."

"We just don't have the special services to depend on like we did before," Splinter observes. "Things are more frantic, more intense. We have to spend all our time just trying to keep the lid on." Altman seconds the sentiment, recalling that getting a problem student off to a counselor for just a few hours a week once allowed for an eye in the storm, some time to teach. Splinter, Altman, and Holt say they aren't in any position to question the administration's budget-cutting moves ("I serve at the pleasure of the superintendent," Holt says). But Betty Thissen, an elementary school clerk who acts as New Arrivals' secretarial nerve center, doesn't hesitate to confirm what nearly every teacher walking the halls is mumbling off-the-record. "It looks to me like they've set us up to fail," she says in exasperation. "Rumor has it we're going to be closed. Again."

A New Arrivals instructor, frazzled by a year of slashed budgets and staff shortages, quiets a student's tantrum in the school gym
Michael Dvorak
A New Arrivals instructor, frazzled by a year of slashed budgets and staff shortages, quiets a student's tantrum in the school gym

Assistant superintendent Cy Yusten calls Thissen's increasingly popular conspiracy theory "totally and absolutely off the wall." He insists that "one of the things we've done this year is to let the school operate. Let them show us what they can do. We haven't interfered or eliminated any crucial services." Yusten does allow, though, that the administration is looking at the elimination of New Arrivals as a way to save dollars next year, even though no alternatives have been devised to handle its at-risk student population: "While the state is giving us a budget increase this year, in real numbers--factoring in inflation and needed services--we're facing a shortfall," he says. "That means we have to start looking at high-cost programs. New Arrivals is a high-cost program."

Thornton Phillips and Oertwig agree that during budget talks, recently postponed until early June, New Arrivals will almost surely be downsized, at best, or, at worst, eliminated altogether. And this time around, the decision could come and go without incident. During their last season on the chopping block, staff at the homeless school rallied together for a fight. Inspired by the students they'd helped reach, they wrote letters and worked the phones to form a formidable constituency made up of thankful parents and social workers throughout the city. This year, though, most staff members aren't sure they even want to come back in the fall. Beaten down by a year of chaos, a year that's felt more like a sentence than a calling, they're looking forward to the lazy days of summer as much as, if not more than, their students.

What's more, teachers say, principal Holt, whom a social worker once called "almost too good to be true," seems overwhelmed, as discipline problems from every grade blow through his office for "time-outs." (One morning in mid-May, a second-grader knocked Holt's glasses off his face for the umpteenth time.) The gentle, lifelong educator with a doctorate in special-education administration says he still has "the best job in the district." But when he says so, it's as if he's trying to convince himself.

While Clifford and Valerie chase each other around the New Arrivals gymnasium, cursing and exchanging body blows, phys-ed instructor Patty Kramer, who's been on staff since day one, summarizes the mood as another nerve-racking year comes to a close. "The morale here is really low. You don't get up anymore and say, 'It's another day of school, yea!' You say, 'Oh, who am I going to have to discipline today? What am I going to with that kid?" she laments. "None of us signed on to be baby sitters. But that's what this has turned into."

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