Mentor's Lament

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

Principal Preciado takes the stage and says good morning to the children of fourth, fifth and sixth grades. He gets back a deafening "Good morning" in return. After the Pledge of Allegiance, Preciado introduces the sixth-grade cheerleaders, who perform several hesitant and barely audible cheers. The students go wild with applause.

As awards are announced, several are won by Kirkendall's students. A girl in Kirkendall's class, Juanita Olguin, wins top honors for physical education. Another, Victoria Montoya, is named the school's top reader.

Kirkendall herself then takes the stage to announce her honor-roll winners. "Let me begin by saying I've had an exceptional class this year. Good skills, good behavior. I was almost embarrassed I had so many students on the honor roll."

She lowers an intimidating look at the room. "Fifth graders, I'm ready for you next year."

She then begins reading out names, and the stage fills with her honor-roll winners. By the time she's done, only five students are left in their seats. One of them is David.

He looks far from crushed, however, still wearing his irrepressible grin. Walking out of the assembly, he shrugs and grins. "I guess I was expecting something," he admits.

Back in Kirkendall's class, Miguel is beaming, staring at the certificate that says he's made Rose Linda's honor roll.

Small for his age, Miguel makes up for it by affecting a tough exterior. In a flash, he can throw down a menacing gangsta flex like he's ready to take on the biggest thug in school. But with the honor-roll certificate in his hand, the little man's tough exterior has evaporated.

Whispering so the other students won't hear, he excitedly talks about taking home the certificate in a few days after it's been laminated. "I really wanted to get the honor roll because [in past quarters] when everybody went up to get them, I was the only one who didn't get it. So I tried my best," he says. "I hope my parents will be glad. When I show the certificate to them, they're going to be really proud of me. Really proud of me, I hope."

"Miguel has shown miraculous growth," Kirkendall says after the students have gone home for the day. And test results bear her out. At the end of his fifth-grade term, Miguel could only manage second-grade-level work. But after only a year with Kirkendall, Miguel now tests at the eighth month of fifth grade. In just a year, Miguel has made up three full years of schooling and is nearly at his own grade level.

He will go on to seventh grade a hardworking student who, like other Kirkendall students, reads on his own without prompting and can motivate himself to finish work at school and at home.

Like many other students, Miguel is a Kirkendall success story.
So why must Kirkendall worry that Miguel and so many of her other charges will ultimately drop out of high school?

"Schools are in a difficult spot. All research shows peer group takes over in sixth grade," says Don Kodluboy, a psychologist who for 10 years was a behavior specialist with the city of Minneapolis and who has written books about children, schools and gangs. "No matter how good a school is, if there's a high degree of social disorganization around the school, it's a big problem. The kids are in a whole lot of trouble."

According to the Phoenix Union High School District, one in six students at South Mountain High School didn't finish the past term. Hispanic students dropped out at a higher rate; one in four didn't complete the prior school year.

Rose Linda students fare even poorer. Teachers estimate that two-thirds to three-quarters of the school's graduates don't finish high school. Principal Preciado disputes those numbers, but teachers such as Kirkendall, who say they stay in contact with students, stand by their estimates.

Despite the miracles being worked in Kirkendall's classroom, students continue to drop out of school, start families entirely too early, and some become involved in gangs.

New Times asked several national experts to comment on the various strategies Rose Linda is employing to combat juvenile delinquency and gang activity.

They were unanimous in saying that Rose Linda and the Roosevelt School District are wasting their time with DARE and GREAT.

Developed in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department, DARE puts police officers in fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms. During the 17-week program, officers lecture students about kinds of drugs and their negative effects and teach children strategies for refusing offers of drugs. Cops also talk to the students about gangs and violence and lead them in written exercises designed to improve their self-esteem.

GREAT, meanwhile, is a nine-week program that was developed by the Phoenix Police Department in 1991 to educate children about gangs and the impact of crime on a community.

Several national studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of the police-sponsored programs in recent years. And they've consistently come to the same conclusion echoed in a recent report by the Department of Justice: "DARE as it is most commonly implemented is largely ineffective for reducing substance use."

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