School of Hard Knocks

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

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.  

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."

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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