Class Dismissed

Michael Dvorak

Looking out through the windows of the school bus, it's hard to tell whether the Eagle's Nest Women's Shelter is a prison, an asylum, or a refuge. The two-story building--long and narrow, its red brick refurbished seven years ago--looms over a quiet corner just a few blocks from downtown St. Paul. A sturdy chain-link fence, with a wide gate that locks at dusk, surrounds the manicured lawn. Wire weaves through steel window bars and a rusty security phone hangs outside the front door fashioned from thick glass and steel. There's rarely anyone outside on the steps. When there is, they're usually wearing an ID badge and smoking a cigarette. Since Eagle's Nest is one of the last stops on today's after-school route, when 7-year-old Cynthia and her 4-year-old sister Kristen hop off the bus they leave behind only a few classmates, the tops of their bobbing heads barely visible as the driver pulls away from the curb. After a last wave goodbye, the two skip down the cracked sidewalk, slip through the gate, and wait to be buzzed into the foyer of the shelter.

Inside, social workers hum through the wide, well-lit hallways. The first-floor rec room echoes with spirited conversation, accompanied by the canned applause of a sitcom. In a playroom down the hall kids of all ages leaf through secondhand picture books and huddle over homework with part-time tutors at the tables. In the back yard other kids play basketball or jump rope on a black-tar parking lot turned playground. Their mothers sit around picnic tables nearby. For now, for once, they're free to read or gossip or just watch their kids have fun. They might be locked in for the night, but at least the abusive fathers, boyfriends, and husbands who caused them to seek refuge here are locked out. "I watched my ma go through this," Cynthia and Kristen's mother, Beth, says. She's sitting in the playroom watching her youngest scribble in a coloring book and talking about getting beat up by a man she once loved--as if the grief were inherited, somehow expected. "So when it started I knew I had to get away. I suppose I waited too long, but I knew how it would end." After getting a divorce from her abusive husband, Beth's subsequent boyfriend started blaming her for his bad luck--using her gut as a punching bag, pinching her shoulders into a bruised map, and slapping her around until her cheeks looked sunburned. The fights always ended like they started, she remembers--shouting, slamming doors, screaming kids. "I'd like to stay here longer," Beth says, barely speaking above a whisper now. "But at least I have some time to get myself together. The most important thing is that I keep my kids separated from this." Her gray eyes are dry and distant. The bruises and broken nose have healed, but her 25-year-old face is scarred by deep wrinkles. "I hope I can leave them in their new school, even after I leave here. They just love that school. That place protects kids like mine. And I'll tell you the truth, that's the first school that's even acknowledged we were there."

What Beth doesn't know is that the school she's raving about--the one advocates for battered women, homeless families, and neglected children can't stop praising--was never meant to be a school. The New Arrivals Skills Center in St. Paul's Phalen neighborhood was, in a sense, a fluke. It started before St. Paul School Superintendent Curman Gaines could stop it, and evaded the school board's attention for several months. In this, New Arrivals' first year, the school enrolled 349 children just like Beth's: homeless kids, foster kids, kids on the move, kids too emotionally beat-up or intellectually starved to make it in a classroom geared toward children with deeper roots.

"Most teachers don't have a clue what these kids are going through," Suky Albert says. The director of youth programs at Eagle's Nest, she's talking about one of the many disheartening attitudes children in her shelter faced before New Arrivals opened last autumn. "A kid falls asleep in their class and they immediately conclude he's lazy. But they don't know what that kid went through last night. They don't know he might've been sleeping in the street or moving from motel to motel. At New Arrivals everyone from the principal to the teachers to the teacher's aides understands." Despite the rave reviews, and despite the school's success with kids like Beth's, New Arrivals is under siege. At a St. Paul School Board meeting on April 8, Gaines and Assistant Superintendent Cy Yusten recommended shutting down the school, claiming that the district couldn't justify its $800,000 budget when other, more basic programs were being cut back. They suggested that the school's high concentration of impoverished children, the majority of whom are children of color, runs contrary to the state Board of Education's desegregation rules. But their numbers were sketchy, and the demographic data they presented incomplete. Worse, says long-time school board member Al Oertwig, they failed to offer any sound alternatives to keeping New Arrivals open next year.  

Oertwig believes Gaines and Yusten were ill-prepared that night because they didn't think anyone would show up to protest shutting down the fledgling school. They didn't count on a meeting room full of homeless parents and shelter advocates. They didn't think the New Arrivals staff would show up to fight for their jobs. They didn't think the kids cared. And in that, says Oertwig, they were wrong. In the past two months New Arrivals has been declared dead, resurrected, and again placed on the chopping block--causing the kind of chaotic limbo inside the school's walls that its students are all too familiar with in their short, unpredictable lives. Staff members have been told they could count on coming back next fall, then been handed pink slips; told to pack up, then asked to stay. The Star Tribune and WCCO-TV have reported the school's salvation and penned editorials trumpeting St. Paul's vision, then been compelled to change the story. New Arrivals' principal has been driven to distraction. The school board has been tripping over itself in an effort to please its adamant superintendent. Advocates have been working the phones at all hours, begging school board members not to pull the plug. Even the students at New Arrivals, ages 4 to 10, have joined the fray, writing essays about how much they love their teachers, how crucial it is to have a place to call home.

On this unseasonably muggy day in mid-May, though, Beth doesn't have the energy to work herself up over a bunch of bumbling bureaucrats. They make her mad, sure. But she figures the turmoil is par for the course. It's hard enough trying to quiet her own fears--about her kids' future, about her own tomorrow. The system will have to wait. After an hour spent dredging up haunting memories, she just wants to spend some time unwinding with her family. So while the sun sets behind St. Paul's miniature skyline, Beth heads out back to shoot hoops with a group of kids from the shelter. After throwing up a few two-handed layups she lifts the smooth, worn leather ball--a world in her palm--above her head. A trio of little boys instantly gathers at her knees, jumping about and begging for a pass. She glances down at them, and a dozen hard years disappear from her face. A mischievous smile crinkles her nose and throws a quick light off the whites of her eyes. She bounces the ball to the boy wearing a faded Bulls jersey, and cheers as he heaves it into the dusk.

In this story, the villainy is free-floating, faceless. There's no one person or agenda to blame, no sinister motives, no smoking guns or buried bodies. In St. Paul, as in any city across the country, public education has become a public drama. Pennies must be pinched. Flexible rules turn rigid. Debate stifles under the weight of swelling class sizes and teacher burnout. And while the chronic bouts of miscommunication and bureaucratic hand-wringing that have threatened to short-circuit New Arrivals in the past year appear almost criminal to its staff, students, and parents, those responsible are more Curly and Moe than Bonnie and Clyde. On the other hand, the heroes and heroines are easy to cast.

The 17 teachers, teacher's aides, and teaching assistants at New Arrivals were recruited because they know how to get through to kids--attention-starved, street-hardened, spirited kids, many with learning disabilities, who will either make the grade here or not at all. They are, simply put, the big people little people like Beth's daughter Cynthia can't wait to see when they get off the bus every morning at 7:45 a.m. When one of her students throws a tantrum or deliberately slices up her skin like pink confetti, first-grade teacher Laura Splinter loses sleep trying to figure out why, and what to do. "You're not just their teacher. You're their mother, their nurse, their social worker, their counselor." Every time one of her students is transferred out or shuffled between shelters, teaching assistant Joan Resner finds herself dreaming her fears. "People need to understand, these kids aren't going to make it in a mainstream school. They'd be buried." When the school's social worker enrolls a new student, she sits down with his parent, his guardians, whoever's around to raise the child--assuring them that no matter what trouble waits outside the school's walls, students are treated with dignity here. New Arrivals' cook keeps her kitchen open all day. Secretary Betty Thissen works the phones like a dispatcher, making sure every student has a ride to their hotel or shelter or relative's house--even if they moved the night before, even if it means calling a cab to drive children to addresses that change too fast to memorize.  

And then there's Dr. George Holt, a principal one local social worker calls "almost too good to be true." The only male staffer at the school not in jeans or khakis, the gray-headed Holt wears his white dress shirt and tie like a uniform, jangling his massive key ring that seems to hold a solution to every lock in the place. When he walks the halls--and he's always walking the halls--he carries a walkie-talkie so he's never out of touch. When a student seems lost or is acting out, he simply holds out a broad hand or whispers something in her ear. No one else knows what secret passes between them, but it works.

As of 1996, Holt--a lifelong educator who holds a doctorate in special-education administration--had already served for seven years as a consultant to Minnesota's Department of Children, Families and Learning. That fall, he decided it was time to get away from the desk and back into the mix, and accepted a position as interim principal at an elementary school in Mounds Park. Less than a year later, Assistant Superintendent Yusten called to say they'd found him an adventure: heading up an on-the-fly skills center for kids new to St. Paul. The original concept, according to both Yusten and Holt, was to shuffle all transitory elementary students through New Arrivals in no more than 30 days. Kids coming into the school district would be tested, a "learner profile" would be written, and then they'd be shipped off, in Yusten's words, to "a regular school." Before things got off the ground, though, Holt pointed out that more than 3,000 students are new to St. Paul every school year. The skills center couldn't be expected to properly evaluate all of those kids--especially at St. Casimir, the old Catholic high school the school district rents to house New Arrivals from 8 to 5. Besides lacking handicap access, the underequipped, run-down building can house only 100 to 150 students at a time.

To lighten the load, Holt worked with Yusten to redesign the school's mission. By the first day of school on September 2, 1997, New Arrivals had morphed from a testing center into a kind of temporary school, unique locally and nationally. Initially, Oertwig says, neither his colleagues on the school board nor Superintendent Gaines paid the school much mind. New Arrivals, after all, would still be a way station at the service of parents and kids new to town. There was, however, a key difference. In the mission statement Holt helped compose, two groups were singled out for attention: parents "identified as homeless" or participating in a shelter program, and children about to be placed in foster care.

Within weeks, and with little fanfare, New Arrivals became known around town as "the homeless school"--a place where compassionate teachers and a saintly principal actually understood what it means to be down and out. Brian Gallagher, an academic assessor for St. Paul schools who's placed dozens of kids at New Arrivals, sums up the metamorphosis succinctly: "I think this thing happened by accident."

Because many of New Arrivals' students move with their parents from shelter to shelter around the city--one night here, the next night there--attendance at school fluctuates radically. Kids aren't even allowed to bring their school books out of the building since they might not be back the following day. From week to week, though, the school educates an average of 90 to 120 students. Principal Holt says a majority of them come from poverty-stricken environs, where school supplies, clean clothes, and self-esteem are hard to come by. As a reflection of St. Paul's low-income demographics, a majority of students at New Arrivals are kids of color--Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Hmong, and, more than any other group, African American. "The most important thing about this school is that self-esteem isn't an issue," Holt says. "It's OK to talk about where you're from. It's OK to be different. Still, I don't know what the magic is here. In part it's a highly motivated, student-centered staff; from our cook to our janitor to our youngest TAs. But I'm not sure you could transfer this and have the same results. With a different staff and a different building, I don't know that we could do it again."

The school is an experiment, after all--one Holt tinkered with even before New Arrivals opened its door. Eventually, he figured, the powers that be would take notice, and make a move to end the school's trial run. Sure enough, in March Holt was informed that New Arrivals was slated to be closed--its classrooms cleaned out, its lights turned off, its doors shut and locked. He fought against the administration's decision, and in late April it looked like he'd won a second chance and another year for the school and its students. A short two weeks later, word came down that New Arrivals was history, again.  

"I get these snack attacks," he said one day at the end of May, just before school let out for the summer. "The other night I woke up, ate a peanut-butter sandwich, and watched it rain at 2:30 a.m. I felt powerless. It's like losing a good friend. You don't blame anybody, you just say it's a fact. You grieve and move on."

Billy is on the loose. Walkie-talkie buzzing static in his hand, educational assistant Paul Gore comes jogging into the front office at New Arrivals to catch his breath.

"Have you seen Billy?" he asks the secretary.

She just smiles and barely looks up from her hand-me-down Apple computer.

"Not in the last hour or two."

Gore runs a quick pan around the office and trots off toward the gym. "What would we do without Billy?" the secretary says to no one in particular, chuckling as she watches Gore go. The question, as everybody around the school knows, is a rhetorical one.

Billy showed up at New Arrivals several months ago. Since then he's learned the names of everyone on staff--and they've learned about him. Teachers around the building affectionately refer to him as "the school's student." Since specific details about the first-grader's background are confidential, it's unclear where his homeless family is sheltered, when he'll be moved again, or why sometimes he lashes out and other times cuddles up to authority like a helpless stray. Everyone on staff is all too aware that Billy is a special case in a small sea of special cases--a kid who probably never would've made it to school, let alone had a chance of making it once he got there, if it weren't for New Arrivals. When he first arrived, St. Paul's director of special education visited New Arrivals on several occasions to track Billy's mood swings and try to decipher his learning disability. Within weeks, a spot opened up in one of the school district's special programs--in a "resource room" where Billy could work one-on-one with specially trained psychologists and teachers. But then Billy's homeless mother moved out of the district to live with friends. In the few weeks before they moved back into the district, the resource room had filled to capacity. If all goes well, if Billy's family finds a place to stay in St. Paul, another space will open up next fall. Until then, Holt and company are back on watch.

Some teachers wonder whether Billy's mother drank during her pregnancy. Others see signs of autism. For whatever reason, one day the blond bomb is nearly comatose, stumbling sleepily from task to task, his chubby cheeks flushed red. The next day he's manic, babbling non sequiturs and in need of constant attention. When his teacher, Laura Splinter, doesn't have time to devote to Billy, Gore grabs the slack. Sometimes he'll move Billy to another classroom where a third-grade or fifth-grade teacher will try to calm him with a coloring book. When Billy loses patience, usually in a matter of minutes, Gore shuttles him back to Splinter. Often times the first person visitors to New Arrivals see is Billy, meditating quietly outside of Holt's office. On the worst days, when he comes to school without taking medication for his hyperactivity, they'll see his eyes are stormy, his limbs a spastic flurry. No matter where he is, though, he's grinning, with his tongue stuck through the gap left by a missing tooth. Not because he thinks he's getting away with anything. He grins because he likes you. He grins because he doesn't know.

To be sure, Billy's is an extreme case. Still, fifth- and sixth-grade teacher Tom Altman says, "99 out of 100" of the students at New Arrivals come through the doors with a busload of baggage. Altman, who spent seven years learning the ropes at an inner-city school in Houston, says he wastes less time disciplining kids at New Arrivals than he did in Texas, where kids were more apt to have homes. Troubled homes, for sure, but homes all the same. At New Arrivals he spends most of his time just trying to crack the protective, callused shells students form in response to the extreme poverty, physical abuse, and emotional neglect that marks their lives. "I have to make sure things are OK at home, make sure things are OK since the last move. Or I'll ask how a sibling is doing in a classroom down the hall." Whatever it takes, he says, and then some.  

"I went to a funeral on Thursday night for one of our students whose 5-month-old brother died," Laura Splinter says after school one day, her voice breaking up. "So the child comes to school the next day, and the first thing they said was, 'Oh, guess what? My brother just died.' And so you've got a child whose brother just died who shows up for school, who doesn't have the family support at home, whose family isn't functioning well the way it is. We spend a lot of time on stuff like that. Whether or not it takes away from the academics, it's something they need. If they can't get beyond that point, the academics aren't going to come at all for them."

"These kids have no control at home," Altman agrees. He and Splinter are close friends, and often trade ideas on how to reach out to their students. "They have no bedroom. They have no bed. They don't have their own dishes. They don't have their own pencils. They don't control anything. Before I discipline a kid, I give them a choice--maybe a 10-second count, just so they have a choice."

To watch Altman teach is to view a work in progress. His class has been small most of the year, usually no more than 10 students. Other teachers in the building are working with 20 or more at a time. He says this gives him an unfair advantage, modestly insisting he's been blessed with a "good batch." While he's juggling the roles of teacher, surrogate father, and friend, though, you realize Altman is one of those rare educators who can balance fairness with firmness, high expectations with compassion. In a classroom where there are always students coming and going, he manages to keep the exceptional kids connected and the at-risk kids caught up. He hands out candy when kids turn in their homework, gives prizes to praise good behavior. He lets his kids laugh at him when he makes a mistake, but never lets them laugh at each other. He's developed a repertoire of tricks that, for whatever reason in whatever situation, break the tension and remind each student they're all in this together. When a kid gets bogged down in a math problem, for instance, Altman drops everything and slowly counts to three. On the final number the class shouts in unison, "I'm melting!"

Like other teachers who've been through the year at New Arrivals, Altman believes he's got, at most, two weeks to get through to a kid. After that it could be too late. The student might be transferred out to another school or, more often, his family might flee the district in search of shelter. He treats those 10 days as if they're the only days his students will ever have a shot at making it in school. Altman's greatest challenge rolled into New Arrivals last fall. William was a street-smart black kid, jaded beyond his years, who'd be damned to take directions from some 31-year-old white boy. No matter Altman's tack, it failed. After a week in the classroom, the rift between them seemed irreparable. William, popular among his classmates, literally started running the class. When Altman disciplined a student William would stand erect and yell the word "victim." His classmates turned into the volunteer chorus.

Altman remembers coming home every night exhausted during those weeks. Every day he'd tell William how smart he was, not only because Altman hoped it would ingratiate him to the boy, but because he was smart. Too smart. Then it happened. Altman saw daylight and sprinted. "He came in one day with an extra sandwich for breakfast," Altman remembers. "I said, 'What's going on? You have a sandwich and you're in a good mood now?' And he said, 'Yeah, I just need a sandwich every morning.' He had a really good day that day. The next morning I had a deli sandwich waiting for him. It became a joke between us. For four and a half months he had a sandwich or a treat waiting for him every single day. That's all it took." Before William was transferred out of New Arrivals in February he became Altman's class monitor.

On other days, Altman just tries to remember where his kids live and what they live with. When Elaine came to New Arrivals a little over a month ago, she was painfully shy. The tall, skin-and-bones sixth-grader never looked up, never spoke loud enough to be heard. With no enthusiasm for learning, she often spent whole afternoons daydreaming at her desk. In the middle of a haphazard softball game one day during gym class, one of Altman's students slid full force into Elaine, who was playing first base. She hit the ground and stayed down. Altman ran to her side, crouched and grabbed her hand. Then he just waited. For a full 15 minutes, Elaine just hung on to him, tight. Nobody needed to move. Nothing else needed to be done. Time could stop if it had to.  

For the rest of the day Elaine held her arm gingerly and pouted, refusing to take part in class. Altman would offhandedly ask how she was doing, but didn't give it too much attention--no soothing, but no scolding for slacking off. As she bussed back to a women's shelter that night to stay with her mother, Elaine cradled her arm as if it were broken. The next day, though, she acted as if the accident had never happened. And for the first time since coming to New Arrivals she started to giggle with her classmates, raise her hand in class, and talk out loud. Later, Elaine's mother, Ricky, says that the oldest of her three children had never looked forward to school, never cared to study, never made friends, until that day. Ricky tells the story in halting sentences, her voice barely audible above the low hum of an air conditioner stuck into the window of her shelter's rec room. Her arms are crossed tightly across her chest. Like mother, like daughter.

"It scares me when I have to send my daughter to a place I don't know," she says finally. "But that teacher's so nice. I think I can trust him. She's making friends. She's laughing again."

"What if home were a series of emergency shelters? Now imagine that you are 8 years old and trying to keep up in school. The New Arrivals School in St. Paul effectively deals with those situations every day. That's why parents persuaded St. Paul school board members this week to keep the program open for a second year."

--Star Tribune editorial, April 30, 1998

After a committee meeting of the St. Paul School Board on April 27, New Arrivals teaching assistant Joan Resner circled the room, extending her hand and her thanks to friends and strangers alike. The tears in her eyes were one part joy, two parts relief. The waiting, it seemed, was over.

Just three weeks earlier, Superintendent Gaines had asked the full school board to close New Arrivals. At that meeting, a contingent of more than 50 students, teachers, advocates, and parents turned out to testify. They argued that the school was well worth its $800,000 budget. They stressed that the program didn't segregate or ostracize kids, that it makes them want to learn. In what would become a pattern, the board decided not to decide. Instead it asked Assistant Superintendent Yusten to come up with alternative ways to help homeless kids become part of the St. Paul school system. He promised to come up with a contingency plan.

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.

"Is this the only school out of compliance with desegregation guidelines?" Oertwig asks, though he already knows the answer. "If we're serving a major need at New Arrivals, we can go to the state and ask for a waiver"--as have several schools in Minneapolis. "There are ways to work around the issue." As late as May 28, Oertwig privately admitted that the chances of saving New Arrivals as a school proper were slim to none. Still, he promised a push, promised to make some noise. On June 2, 72 hours before the last day of school, teachers at New Arrivals received a letter from the administration informing them they'd been placed in a pool of applicants for involuntary transfer. It was the equivalent of a pink slip.

Character. In Mr. Altman's classroom this morning, it's everything. There will be no fractions before lunch, no spelling test, no rap session about the Boston tea party. All 10 students in class must finish writing their character sketches. Today. No excuses.  

The assignment was due weeks ago, but it's been slow going. Most of these kids have never done writing like this. Their imaginations are driven by TV, not the written word, so coming up with creative details has been tough. To help things along, Altman tells them to write about themselves. The students push their desks into groups of two and three. They speak in whispers, repressing giggles and rolling their eyes at each other's tales. The only person talking out loud is Billy, who's been shuttled in from Laura Splinter's classroom. His nonsensical outbursts are a distraction, but Altman doesn't permit his students to use them as an excuse for blowing another deadline. "I know it's hard to concentrate when other students visit our classroom," Altman booms. "But we can't laugh at Billy. We can't encourage him. We have to do our best to help Ms. Laura. OK? One. Two. Three."

"I'm melting," the class roars with glee.

"I don't like myself," Cheryl confesses, fidgeting in front of a blank piece of paper. "I have mean thoughts. I want to hurt people." In no time, she's engaged in a monologue about her family. The paper is still blank, but the story she tells is arresting. "I haven't seen my Dad in a couple of weeks. He usually visits on Saturday. But we moved to a different motel, so maybe he couldn't find us. Or maybe he's dead. He's in the army so he could've been killed. But I've been watching the news every night and they don't say he's dead."

At the end of the day Cheryl hands in her fictional account about a girl she calls Samantha: "About seven months after her 11th birthday her parents split up. It was hard on Samantha. They split up because Samantha's mother said she couldn't take it anymore. She said she was only 17 when she had Sam. She claims that she is really sorry." In all the stories Altman collects there are common themes: single parents, drug abuse, child abuse, neglect, street violence. There is sorrow, and a desire for stability. In some of the work, like Elaine's story about an abusive mother named Nancy and her daughter Amy, the narratives read more like distress signals than creative-writing assignments:

"Mom, no Mom Don't," said Amy.


Knock, knock.

"Now who is it?" asked Nancy.

"Your arrested for beating your child," said the police officer. The ambulance left.

"What will happen to my children," asked Nancy.

"They will be going to foster homes," said the other police officer. Three days later it was Amy's funeral. Nancy showed up so did Amy's brothers and sisters. When Amy's funeral was over Nancy was crying realized what she did.

That these kids are able to exorcise these kinds of demons in a school assignment, to share their secrets with one another, is unique to New Arrivals. Kelly K, an advocate working with foster parents who prefers to remain anonymous, says other schools single out her kids, make them feel like outsiders, encourage them to withdraw or provoke them into becoming troublemakers.

"George's staff expects to teach these kinds of children from these kinds of backgrounds," she says. "I think our other schools are more geared toward better-adjusted children--kids with two parents who aren't abusive, who aren't living out of their car or moving from shelter to shelter." Women's advocate Patricia Banks seconds the observation. "I don't think most teachers are trained in how violence affects the whole family. The kids may have not been abused, but they've certainly witnessed it and been affected by seeing and hearing what's going on. They're in a bad place. Schools aren't equipped to provide that special understanding. In fact, over the years, one school near our shelter didn't even want us to come in and give a seminar about what these kids are going through. They didn't want to hear it."

Banks goes on to say that most teachers she's met, those in affluent and inner-city schools alike, don't want to hear what they believe doesn't belong in the classroom. They don't want to hear a student talking about how his brother was killed in a knife fight. That a second-grader's guardian, her grandmother, is smoking crack. That a little girl, too young to wind her own pigtails, is being sexually abused. They don't want to hear about character.

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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