The first Thomas J. Pappas school was started in 1990 with the best of intentions — to provide children of homeless and severely poor families with a stable learning environment that also addresses challenges in their lives that most of us will never truly understand.
After all, how can we expect children who don’t know where they will rest their heads at night or where they will find enough money to buy a single notebook to be prepared and eager to study like any other student?
An emotional wretching that strikes each of us when we think about the plight of these children propelled the expansion of the Pappas concept from a classroom of six kids at a homeless shelter to three separate campuses in Phoenix and Tempe serving more than 600 students from kindergarten through high school. The concept was pushed relentlessly by Maricopa County Regional School Superintendent Sandra Dowling and attracted widespread support (although not enough financial backing) with stories of compassion and heartache told by Dowling’s staff and Pappas teachers.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors probably could have dealt with the troubling concerns about the regional district piling up millions of dollars in debt and the serious felony charges against Dowling, as long as the Pappas schools were providing a critical service to those most desperately in need.
But the cold, hard truth is the Pappas schools are failing, as the Tribune’s Jennifer Pinner reported Tuesday, despite what the teachers say and even what many of the children themselves believe. The facts are indisputable. The Arizona Department of Education says AIMS test scores for Pappas students fall below the average Arizona student, as well as below other homeless children in traditional schools.
The second comparison is critical, because an estimated 12,000 homeless students are attending regular Valley schools. If the Pappas approach was making a real difference for its students, logic dictates their average test scores should be higher than others in similar situations because of the extra attention and assistance provided to Pappas students and their families.
It also should be noted that Pappas still exists only because Dowling convinced members of Congress to place an exemption in federal funding laws that forbids segregation of homeless students because of national research that indicates these children fare better when they associate with students living in more normal circumstances.
Defenders of the Pappas’ schools are desperately trying to distract the public from this reality. “To me, education isn’t all about test scores,” Pappas teacher Connie Lopez told the Tribune. “It’s about meeting the needs of the child both academically and socially.”
But a court order to move Dowling aside and place the county regional district under control of a panel of three education experts presents a fresh opportunity to brush aside such emotions and to focus on what really is best for these students. Unless this panel can propose some way to immediately improve instruction and test scores, it’s time for the 16-year Pappas experiment to come to an end.