Mentor's Lament

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

Other students face similarly catastrophic home lives. One girl began the school year by making herself vomit daily to keep from going to school. She couldn't face the taunts of other children after her mother went to jail on drug charges. Another girl copes with her mother's car-accident death; her father had already abandoned the family. Others admit to thoughts of suicide and speak of their adolescent problems as insurmountable. One boy, excited that a New Times article will be written about him, brags that he's been in the news three times before. "When my mom and dad got into a fight. When my tio beat up my tia. And the time I was a witness to a gunfight."

Many students described being witnesses to violence, while others said their neighborhoods were calm and safe. All denied taking part in any criminal activity and universally condemned friends or family members that had any connection to gangs.

Still, several students spent their free time practicing to write in Old English script, the preferred lettering of Latino gangs.

Kirkendall says she tolerates the use of Old English, as long as students don't write out gang names or slogans. When she sees a student write out "Ninth Street," she contacts parents. She says that parents usually react with disbelief; some act defensive and make excuses for their children's gang wanna-be behavior.

Phoenix Police Department sergeant P.J. Ferrero says Southside Ninth Street emerged about six years ago, when gang expansion peaked in the Valley. Contained to a few city blocks around Rose Linda School, Southside is "not really a big problem," Ferrero says, at least compared to other gangs in the area such as another from that neighborhood, the notorious Broadway Gangsters, which police rate as one of the Valley's three most dangerous.

He says police are also wary of another gang in the area that battles Ninth Street for turf: Southside Wetback Power 21st Street, one of a large network of Wetback Power gangs made up primarily of Mexican nationals.

Asked about gang influence in the school, most Rose Linda students are quick to mention Ninth Street; several eighth graders claimed that all older children identify either with Ninth Street or Wetback Power.

"We know the kids in the gangs," says principal Preciado. "They are respectful. We tell them to leave our kids alone."

Retiring librarian Ann Adams says Kirkendall and other teachers at the school are all the more remarkable because of the neighborhood they serve. "I'm amazed, when you look at what these families go through, that some of these kids even get to school at all," Adams says.

Besides Kirkendall's influence and a schoolwide coordination of unambiguous discipline, Rose Linda School relies on other strategies to keep children from succumbing to harsh familial or neighborhood environments. There's the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, for example, which brings Phoenix Police Department officer Doc Brown to Kirkendall's class to talk to students about how to refuse offers of drugs from tough-talking gang members and wanna-bes. Brown keeps the room in stitches as he belittles the gang mentality with entertaining imitations. Fifth graders, meanwhile, are exposed to another police program, Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT).

And vice principal Irene Lopez is well known in the community for promoting an annual career day that brings in adults, including well-known politicians and members of the local media, to talk about their successes to the children.

Lopez also arranged to have Allen DeGraffenreid, a second-year center for the Arizona Cardinals, come to school to mentor a half-dozen eighth graders she had identified as "knuckleheads," her euphemism for chronic disrupters who had shown gang wanna-be behavior and had committed minor offenses such as tagging (graffiti). DeGraffenreid proved remarkably dedicated and visited his knuckleheads twice a week for the entire school year.

After years of dealing with problem children coming from problem homes, Rose Linda had developed a multipronged effort to keep its students out of trouble.

The result is immediately apparent to a visitor. Despite its surroundings, Rose Linda appears to be a thriving school with well-behaved children hewing to militarylike discipline interrupted by periods of perfectly normal childhood chaos.

Like Kirkendall's class, it seems an oasis.

"I have three favorite subjects. Lunch, recess and free time," says David Machado, a substantial kid with plump cheeks and an infectious smile who plays drums in the school band. "I say that as a little joke," he adds in a voice with a melodious, but mild, Mexican accent.

He's sitting with his classmates in the school's auditorium, waiting for the annual awards ceremony to begin. It's here that students will learn if they've won trophies for excelling in the band or reading or other areas. And it's also where students learn if they've made the honor roll.

As the presentation begins, Kirkendall chides the boys in her class for looking sloppy. "If you get an award, don't go onstage with your shirt untucked," she says.

Machado pats down his shirt. "Better check," he says, sounding excited. He denies that he's expecting to win anything today. "If you don't expect one, you might get it. But if you do expect one, you might not get it," he says with hopeful eyes.

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