By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
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.
A roundish African-American woman with a stern but maternal countenance, the 44-year-old teacher sits with a watchful eye as her classroom runs itself.
Kirkendall's colleagues say she has a reputation as the toughest teacher in the Roosevelt School District. Students outside her class utter her name with looks of horror on their faces. Students and teachers alike describe fifth graders weeping openly when they're told they've been assigned to Kirkendall's class for the coming year.
Students think she's the meanest person at the school, and Kirkendall likes it that way. She says, "It's a rude awakening when they come to me and Ms. Stevenson."
Kirkendall and Rene Stevenson teach two of the school's three sixth grade classes, and swap students for some subjects. The two African-American women--each has taught for 23 years--are the most ardent disciplinarians in a school noted for its rigid order.
"You can call me Godzilla. You can think I'm as mean as can be. But I'll tell you what, you're going to learn something in here. You came to me not being able to write your name. That won't be the case when you leave," says Kirkendall, who is herself a product of Rose Linda's school district.
Kirkendall says parents initially complain that their children think she and Stevenson are unnecessarily mean. But that feeling doesn't last, she says. "By the end of the year they love us."
If Kirkendall encourages a reputation of meanness to intimidate incoming fifth graders, her own students know that inside her classroom she has a different reputation: as a mothering teacher who expects the highest standards of behavior and academic achievement and rewards those achievements with humor and affection.
Interviewed individually outside the classroom, nearly all of Kirkendall's students describe their initial fear of Kirkendall turning to affection. Jennifer Arvizu's response was typical: "Everyone said she was mean. But since I've been in the class, I've made honor roll and I've gotten my homework done. I haven't been as interested in talking on the phone."
Almost never raising her voice, Kirkendall instead stops unruly students in their tracks with a heavy stare and a slow burn. "It just takes a look," she says, explaining that teachers who resort to shouting only encourage adolescent minds that consider most adults insane anyway. Yell at a 12 year-old, she says, and a student will just turn away, make a defiant look to save face with the rest of the class, and ignore what he's been told.
But Kirkendall's calm, intimidating look seems to frighten students to their cores. Other teachers at the school know it, and send their problem students to Kirkendall's class for disciplining. On any given day, while her 26 students are working at their desks, one or more students from other classes and grades may be standing at the walls or in the corners of Kirkendall's room, doing penance by being shunned and ignored.
Kirkendall never sends any of her students to other teachers. She doesn't have to. Her students are so well-behaved, when Kirkendall leaves the room for several minutes to take a phone call, they continue their work as if she'd never left. Without more than a few whispers, they continue to read books and complete assignments. You wait for the room to erupt in noise, slap fights and spitballs, but none of it happens.
"My secret? I always tell students what I expect of them," she says.
The result is a classroom of respectful, pleasant students. Some struggle academically. But many of them excel. So much so that Kirkendall says she's embarrassed to admit that so many of her students are getting high marks.
Kirkendall not only has a reputation for being tough on bad behavior, but tough as a grader as well. A year ago, only three of her 28 students were able to make a B average or better to secure a spot on the school's honor roll.
She hates to say it, but 17 of her students--the majority--have made the list this year.
"It's the best class I've ever had," she says, sounding mystified.
Near the back of the room, Jose and Miguel (not their real names) share a collection of four desks pushed together to make a large tabletop. Although both seem very bright, the two have struggled to raise their grades in Kirkendall's class.
Miguel came into the class with miserable test scores--according to a standardized test he was capable of only second-grade work despite being 12 years old--but he's improved under Kirkendall's tutelage so rapidly that he may, for the first time since enrolling as a kindergartner, make the school's honor roll.
Miguel speaks in a kind of awe about how seriously his father has taken his attempt to raise his grades. His father has changed his work schedule so he can help Miguel with homework, and he rewards Miguel for doing schoolwork on the weekends. After months of dedication, Miguel knows he's just days from finding out if he'll make his goal.
Jose hasn't fared as well. Imaginative and well-spoken, the slight, Mexican-American boy has struggled. But there's a good reason for it.
His grades have plummeted, Kirkendall says, since his father raped his sister and then threatened him if he told anyone about it.
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.
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."
DARE doesn't work. That's what numerous researchers have found time and again. DARE America officials, however, say the program's popularity--DARE is implemented in 70 percent of the nation's school districts--is a better gauge of its effectiveness than scientific studies. But comparisons of drug use by children who have been through the program and those who have not show that the program does not reduce substance abuse.
A report by the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention says that DARE doesn't work because it doesn't last long enough, because it involves outsiders coming to class to lecture students and because it unrealistically expects children to stand firm against any kind of drug experimentation. Researchers note that not only does DARE fail to keep kids from using drugs, but that its detailed descriptions of certain drugs may actually facilitate some drug use.
The report also criticizes GREAT, saying that it is "almost entirely devoid of content and methods focusing on teaching students social competency skills." A preliminary study of GREAT suggested that some gains were made among students, but that the effect was very small.
The same Justice Department report describes school strategies that seem much more effective in cutting down juvenile delinquency. Researcher Denise Gottfredson, one of the report's authors, describes an inner-city Baltimore school that made remarkable progress by simply clarifying and enforcing its rules of discipline. "Schools in which students notice clear school rules and reward structures and unambiguous sanctions also experience less disorder. These schools are likely to signal appropriate behavior for students." With a coordinated effort by teachers, students and administrators, there was no ambiguity about what constituted bad behavior or what its penalty would be. The school also instituted a "career exploration program, which exposed youth to positive role models in the community."
Gottfredson concludes that the best way to reduce delinquency and substance abuse in students is to use school staff and students themselves to enforce firm, fair rules about behavior, both good and bad, while exposing students to successful adult role models and career possibilities.
This is precisely what Rose Linda has done.
Ann Adams, the retiring librarian, says that Rose Linda has been able to create remarkable discipline because of a coordinated effort by every staff member. "You have to have it from the superintendent on down. If you don't have back-up from the administration when you send someone to the office, it falls apart," she says.
Preciado says the school maintains good discipline by providing lots of incentive to be good. "The students don't want something like tagging to ruin a dance or a trip. And we've canceled activities to follow through on a threat. We'll tell them to give up a beeper, for example, or we'll cancel a dance," he says.
Sergeant Ferrero, who works in the Phoenix Police Department's Street Gang Investigations Unit, defends the use of DARE and GREAT, but agrees that schools also must create a coordinated effort between teachers and administrators that keeps students under constant observation.
"It's all one big net, it all needs to work together," Ferrero says. "The worst thing they could do is ignore the problem."
Experts like Don Kodluboy and University of Southern California professor Malcolm Klein agreed with the Department of Justice report that found that DARE is ineffective. But they were encouraged by Rose Linda's other strategies to combat gang wanna-be behavior.
Kodluboy, the Minneapolis psychologist, was impressed that Arizona Cardinals player Allen DeGraffenreid visited his "knuckleheads" so many times throughout the school year.
"Sounds like he's met the test for a really good mentor. An athlete showing up for a short time is a good thing. But an athlete persisting, and hanging in there, that's much more impressive to me."
DeGraffenreid says he didn't want to be like other athletes, who show up in depressed areas purely for public-relations reasons to help the image of pro teams. "I didn't want to be one of these guys who just came and went," he says. "I wanted to go somewhere where the kids actually needed some help."
Lopez and Preciado both lauded DeGraffenreid's dedication and say that the eighth graders he's been counseling have all raised their grades.
But Gottfredson, in her report, and Klein both warn that outsiders brought to counsel kids don't always gain credibility with students, who too easily see their benefactors as disingenuous. That may be the case with DeGraffenreid's eighth graders.
New Times obtained a note from one of the knuckleheads to another that was written near the end of the school year:
G----- dogg! I'm sorry you can't walk through the line [at graduation ceremonies] but like your daddy said, 'Keep your head up.' You and I both are probably the only ones who have been caught up in this web of bullshit. Mr. Preciado and Ms. Lopez could give a rat's ass about our ghetto life. [Rose Linda's former principal] lives down the street from my dad in Ahwatukee. Do you think he'd actually send his kids here to Rose Linda? Hell no. His boys go to [illegible school name] and next they'll go to Desert Vista, not South Mountain. Allen [DeGraffenreid] thinks he knows what it's like, but he don't know shit. He don't live 7th Street and Broadway. No! That muthafucker lives in Scottsdale right by Fashion Square! But you know what? Fuck everybody because only the strong survive.
Your homie till the end,
Klein says he doesn't like saying so, but he thinks the note indicates these boys may already be beyond help.
"Once they get themselves sort of committed to gang behavior--and these two may be thinking in those terms--then anything we do to them or for them . . . they will bastardize. They will contort it, turn it around to their own benefit. 'We're so tough they gotta give us a football player,' or 'a football player isn't worth shit, man, because he doesn't know the streets.' Whatever it is, they'll use it to reinforce their bonds together," Klein says. "So if you don't intervene before that tipping point, you may very well be too late.
"And that's a terrible message. I hate that message. But the fact is the group process that gets involved with these kids, especially once they become committed to gang behavior, that group process turns everything around. And they use it to go back to the homies on the corner and say, 'Hey, the motherfuckers couldn't handle us.' Or whatever the case may be, they use it to reinforce their own bonds together. And all the well-meaning things that we can do in the world can be contorted that way."
Sergeant Ferrero agrees that schools can only do so much to keep children from identifying with gangs. More influential, he says, is the environment children go home to.
"If we don't do something about the environment, I don't care what kind of school we send these kids to," he says. "They get sucked back into that environment. That's what's so sad."
However, Rose Linda School may be missing out on another good opportunity to combat juvenile delinquency. Four years ago, the state began a program, Safe Schools, which places juvenile probation officers at schools to guarantee a continuity between school and criminal-justice agencies. Safe Schools also allows for quick handling of cases of delinquency on campus.
Hellen Carter serves on a state committee that oversees the program. She's also director of community services for the Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Department, and she says initial studies show that the Safe Schools program is having a significant effect curbing student misbehavior at certain schools. But the Legislature has only funded the program so that 21 probation officers currently serve 34 schools. Carter says the Roosevelt School District applied to Safe Schools so that probation officers would be put in all of its schools, including Rose Linda, but the district was turned down. Until the Legislature approves more money for the program, Carter says, schools like Rose Linda are out of luck.
But even if Rose Linda had a probation officer to bolster the discipline meted out by a remarkable teacher like Angela Kirkendall, the school might never be able to prevent some children from abusing drugs, dropping out of school and joining gangs.
"The majority of the kids, even many of those who drop out, won't become committed gang members," says USC's Klein. "The difficulty is predicting, identifying which ones will. And that gets really very tough. We're not good at that.
"There's not much a school can do about that. Until we get better at identifying who's likely to join and who's not, I think the best and safest and most civil-rightsy thing to do is to wait for the behavior to start showing. It's the behavior that gives you, in any case, the right to intervene in a kid's life."
In the meantime, Kirkendall intervenes in the lives of students like Miguel, who was on a disastrous academic path until he made up three years of schooling in a single term and earned the right to stand on stage for making the honor roll.
A few days after his excitement at making honor roll, Miguel admits that he still hasn't told his father--the one who had rearranged his schedule to help Miguel raise his grades--about his achievement. Asked why, Miguel just shrugs.
But late one afternoon, as the other students file out to go home, Miguel signals that he wants to talk. He quickly drops his usual smiling bravado and begins whispering.
He hasn't told his father about making honor roll because his father hasn't been home in a week. His father's an alcoholic, Miguel says, and he and his mother have been fighting.
"We think he has someone else. I don't like looking at my mom crying," Miguel says. "We're going to leave. We gave him a chance before, but we're going to leave him. I don't feel for him anymore."
Miguel also describes standing up to his 21-year-old sister's boyfriend, who has been beating her. And he's concerned about his mother, who watches other people's children during the day and cleans other people's homes at night. Miguel says she refuses to get medical attention for an injured arm.
"I don't know if I'm going to school next year. We want to hide from my dad. I feel like just not living anymore. I have too many problems in my life," says the 12-year-old.
Miguel's mother says she knows that her son has been deeply affected by the troubles in his home. She asks that his real name not be used. As of press time, she was still trying to raise enough money to move to another state.
Although Kirkendall has a firm grip on her students in school, she says she's well aware that she can do little about what happens outside of it. She says that a few successful former students who come back to tell them they have landed jobs at Intel or AlliedSignal keep her from feeling that all of her work is going to waste. It's long become apparent, she says, that success in her class does not translate into success later on, even for her brightest students.
There's Juanita Olguin, for example. Kirkendall and other staffers at Rose Linda speak of Juanita as being something of a prodigy--a brilliant girl who could not possibly stumble. But Kirkendall says that in this neighborhood, she's learned that even such a successful young girl may not make it.
"You look at Juanita, and see how she functions in school, and you'd think she would make it," Kirkendall says. "But I don't know. I just don't know."
Only hours of school remain in the school year, but some unruly fifth graders couldn't contain themselves, getting in trouble for crawling under tables and yelling. They file into Kirkendall's classroom for disciplining, their heads hanging low.
Kirkendall and Stevenson shake their heads.
"The last day of school? The last day of school, and you're misbehaving?" Kirkendall asks.
Kirkendall and Stevenson both recognize them as fifth graders, and the teachers put on a good show for the kids, who already seem terrified to be in their presence.
"You better get this out of your system now before you come to our classrooms next year," Kirkendall says with a tone that implies untold horrors await the delinquents.
"Yes, Lord, I'm going to pray for you, light some candles," Stevenson chimes in.
The fifth graders go to the room's corners and face the wall as Kirkendall and Stevenson crank up their act.
Kirkendall: "I hope that sun bakes it out of your brain this summer."
Stevenson: "Not rare, but medium well-done."
Kirkendall: "Oh, I don't want them burnt. I want some brain left."
They ask the boys about their plans for summer school. One of them says he's not coming, he got good grades. But then he admits that he got a five--failed reading.
Kirkendall: "We'll be waiting for you next year."
Stevenson: "Yes, Lord. You won't be getting a five in reading in my class."
Later the students file out to go back to their own classroom.
Kirkendall lowers an icy glare at them. "Stay out of trouble the rest of the day. You come back in here and I'll body slam you," she says.
Her own students get a much different final admonition. At the end of the day, Miguel and Jose and Juanita Olguin and David Machado and the rest prepare their backpacks for the last time.
"I hope that next year none of you have to visit me. I think you have been taught well. Make me proud, make Ms. Stevenson proud. I'll still be here for detention, and I'll know who's getting in trouble. I think that's everything."
She pauses, a satisfied smile on her face.
"I'm getting ready to unleash you onto the world. Okay, you may go."
Jesse Ortiz comes over to give her a hug, and that starts a trend.