HARD LESSONS: A YEAR IN SCHOOL : SPECIAL REPORT / EDUCATION : PART 9: THE HOME FRONT : Poverty Squeezes Hearts, Minds

Almost one in five students at Northridge Middle School lives in a gated compound surrounded by tall iron fences topped with coils of razor wire like the frontier of some country from which the citizens would like to escape.

The two entrances to the 70 two-story stucco buildings that make up the Park Parthenia Apartments have guard booths manned by men and women wearing bulletproof vests under their crisp blue uniforms and polished gold badges.

It is both a vibrant and energetic place, like a market square in Latin America, and a place of brooding and poverty, with the aimless, desperate feel of a refugee camp.

The gates of Park Parthenia close at 9 p.m., but Sandra Fuentes and her two younger brothers, Christian and Ivan, must be indoors long before that to avoid the gang members and drug dealers who operate outside and inside the complex despite the security guards.

Sandra, a sixth-grader with long, dark hair who still likes to watch afternoon cartoons when she gets home from school, lives in a neat, two-bedroom apartment for which the family pays $700 a month. Sheets cover the two old sofas in the living room, and clotheslines run through the living room and the bedroom Sandra shares with her brothers, who are 8 and 11. There are almost no pictures on the walls, unless you count a "Student of the Month" certificate above Sandra's bed.

Her dad, Guillermo, came from El Salvador nine years ago. Two years later, he brought his wife, Odilia, a broad-faced woman who ties her hair on top of her head and wears a constant, polite smile like a decoration that she has put on to go with the sparkling formal dress that she wears for visitors. The couple could only afford to bring the children up two years ago, Odilia said in Spanish.

"It was difficult" to be without them, she said.

Guillermo works seven days a week as a gardener, and his wife cleans houses four days a week. They have no car, so both catch the bus out in front of the apartment complex. The family is clearly poor, but it is not an angry, desperate poverty. It is the dignified kind that is known by people who have known much worse somewhere else and who are confident that their lives will get better.

Odilia said they are comfortable. "At least she can afford money for the food," Sandra said, translating for her mother in a soft, breathy voice that makes her sound very frail.

The family can even afford to go out to dinner at Taco Bell or McDonald's three times a month.

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Sandra's English is good, although she doesn't trust herself to speak long, complicated sentences. After only two years in the United States, Sandra is in the intermediate English as a Second Language class, which means she could be in regular classrooms soon.

The first thing Sandra does when she gets home from school is have a snack, usually a piece of fruit, and then she gets to her homework on the kitchen table.

This brings up an issue that Beryl Ward cares deeply about, and which is part of the running debate over the best way to educate the poor children at Northridge.

Ward has urged the teachers at Northridge not to count homework as more than 10% of the grade. She argues that children such as Sandra cannot be held to the same performance standards as kids living in spacious suburban homes.

"A lot get low grades because they don't do their homework," said Assistant Principal Bob Coburn. "But if you go home to a three-room apartment with eight to 10 people, you don't have a quiet area. They can't go home like we did with cookies and a glass of milk before dinner."

But the visit to Sandra's apartment and to a dozen other homes, as well as an informal survey of several classes, revealed that most of the students had a place set aside to do their work.

Often, with the most recently immigrated children, it turned out that there was a higher level of concern about doing well in school than in some Anglo homes, where American anti-authority attitudes sometimes left the kids feeling conflicted about following rules. The parents of the immigrant kids often had rules about when homework should be done and about how much television they are allowed.

So it is possible there is a misconception, born of compassion, about these students' lives. Certainly, some of Ward's opponents on the faculty think so.

"It is the worst sort of condescension to presume these kids are not up to our demands," said Don Betts.

Sandra said school is easy for her. She got five A's and one B on her last report card.

" Muy intelligent," her mother said proudly.

Despite the family's financial condition, they are already planning for Sandra's college education. In the past year, they have managed to save $1,000.

The Fuentes family squeezed together on one of the sofas and talked about their hopes for the future. Sandra said she would like to be a math teacher.

Odilia didn't hesitate a moment. "I want to live in a different place," she said.*

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