Mentor's Lament

Even tough, effective teachers like Angela Kirkendall struggle to shield inner-city kids from the lure of the streets

Angela Kirkendall's 26 11- and 12-year-olds pull out math homework, straighten crumpled papers and whisper urgent messages. It's the morning of May 4, and the Rose Linda Elementary School sixth-grade class is about to start in earnest. But first, students must endure morning announcements, which come out of a tinny loudspeaker mounted to the wall.

No one pays much attention to the halting recitation of Cinco de Mayo history being read over the intercom by a student in the school's office. Another student reads the same short essay in smoother Spanish, but Kirkendall's kids have completely zoned out the noisy loudspeaker.

They only look up when something more remarkable comes out of it--the voice of their acting principal, Richard Preciado.

Preciado doesn't normally contribute to the morning announcements, but today he takes the microphone to thank his students for reacting calmly to a gang shooting that broke out next to the school the day before.

At least that's what teachers and administrators thought was happening when they heard popping sounds coming from Nueve Park, which abuts the south Phoenix school and is known as a hangout for the Southside Ninth Street Gang. Rose Linda was thrown into "lockdown" as teachers and their students hid in classrooms to wait out what sounded like a drive-by shooting.

"What could have been a gunfight turned out to be fireworks in the park," says a relieved-sounding Preciado. He thanks the students for cooperating, and vows that he and the teachers will continue to take precautions to protect them.

The tinny loudspeaker falls silent, and Kirkendall's students begin exchanging homework. If being locked in their classroom the day before to wait out what was thought to be a gang shooting traumatized any of them, they show no sign of it.

That's probably because Kirkendall is Rose Linda's queen of discipline. When kids in other classrooms cause trouble, they're sent to Kirkendall to get straightened out. Her tough-love approach has done more than inspire fear--it helps many poor and mediocre students do their best work ever.

"I'm not paid to be nice," Kirkendall says. "I'm paid to teach. I don't baby these kids."

So calm reigns in Kirkendall's class, despite its location in a neighborhood on perpetual edge, a place where gunfire is much more common than firecrackers.

In February, a bumper crop of dead bodies led Phoenix officials to focus their attention, briefly, on a neighborhood that lies on the wrong side of the Salt River, where Broadway Road is lined with tire shops and junkyards and other ramshackle businesses.

Mayhem in a crackhouse near 24th Street that produced four corpses was followed days later by another shooting blocks away that left one dead and four injured. New Times found that the two incidents were related, that an 18-year-old had allegedly shot up the second house to eliminate witnesses who knew he was responsible for the body count at the crackhouse. Witnesses also suggested that the murders were gang-related, a payback between warring factions.

In south and west Phoenix, police say, scores of gangs protect patches of turf, some not more than a couple of city blocks square. Not far from the site of February's multiple murders, a short segment of Ninth Avenue intersects Broadway Road. Locals and the police say the area is plagued by the Southside Ninth Street Gang, particularly little Nueve Park, which lies hard against Rose Linda Elementary.

Rose Linda is a kindergarten through eighth grade school that feeds nearby South Mountain High School. Ninety percent of its 746 students are Latino. Eighth graders tell New Times that all of the older children at Rose Linda choose to identify either with Southside Ninth Street or with Wetback Power, a notorious Valleywide collection of gangs made up of Mexican nationals.

Principal Preciado describes a sort of truce on campus, saying that the school administration knows local gang members, and asks them to keep their hands off Rose Linda students. Last year, uniforms meant to combat gang-identifying apparel became mandatory.

Many students, however, fall prey to a hardscrabble life of poverty, high mobility, and, in some cases, victimizing family members. Some turn to the camaraderie and excitement of gang life, exhibiting signs of gang affiliation by the fifth and sixth grades.

Kirkendall's students get a glimpse of an orderly world too few have known. In her classroom, things can work out. Expectations are high, and hard work is rewarded with good grades. For the first time, many get a sense of accomplishment from school.

Unfortunately, too many of her students, high achievers included, will fall by the wayside in the years ahead.

Two-thirds won't finish high school.

Asked how Rose Linda School battles gangs and other problems faced by students in an area of high gang activity, principal Richard Preciado and Angela Kirkendall gave New Times access to Kirkendall's sixth-grade class for the final month of Rose Linda's school year.

After a few days of curious stares, Kirkendall's students became accustomed to a reporter sitting at a desk, taking notes.

Much happens in Kirkendall's class without her having to say a word. Like a well-oiled machine, her classroom operates quietly and in a regular rhythm.

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