A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 12: The Home Front : Poverty Squeezes Hearts and Minds

Times Staff Writer

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 main entrance to the complex of 70 two-story stucco buildings that make up the Park Parthenia Apartments has a guard booth staffed 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.

In early evening, the streets fill with laughing, screaming, crying children, children pushing other children in strollers, and children jumping off a wall onto a stack of rolled-up carpet pads. All around are the cars with dented fenders and seven-tone paint jobs. Men in baseball caps sit on the grass like statuary, with nothing to do because they didn't get work today.

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 of and in 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 sparkly formal dress that she wears for visitors. The couple could only afford to bring the children to the United States 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 seen 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.

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 for 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 the 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 confused 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.

Much of the conversation with Odilia Fuentes was conducted in Spanish, which is the unofficial language of Park Parthenia.

That may explain why Sandra Rodriguez, a shy sixth-grader with long, brown hair, is in the ESL program even though she was born in the United States.

Sandra has lived at Park Parthenia since she was born. Her parents came from Mexico 15 years ago, and her father, a cook, died two years ago at the age of 32 of a heart attack. Now Sandra's mother is on welfare.

There are five children, including three brothers ranging in age from 10 to 15, in the one-bedroom apartment. Sandra sleeps in a bed with one brother, and her mother sleeps with another. The third brother sleeps on the floor.

This is not unusual among the ESL students, said program coordinator Judi Levin. She did an informal survey once to find out how many people lived under one roof and found that the range was between seven and 13.

"Many do not know what a living room is, because many times there are beds in the living room," she said.

Sandra's 16-year-old sister recently moved in with her boyfriend. Actually, according to Sandra, the boy "took" her sister. They went out together, and he kept her with him all night. The next day, the boyfriend's family came over and said, "She's living with us now," Sandra said.

Sandra's mother began crying, but her sister said she wanted to live with the boy, so there was nothing to be done.

Now sometimes Sandra goes to visit her sister, who is pregnant. The expectant father cleans houses for a living.

"She tells me not to leave home too early," Sandra said.

Sandra wants to go to college and become a nurse. She says her English is still poor because everyone where she lives speaks Spanish. But it isn't just at home. When they go out to the market, everyone there speaks Spanish. When they go to a favorite restaurant in San Fernando, everyone there speaks Spanish.

"In the fifth grade they told us to speak English only (at home). I only did it one day, and then I forget," Sandra said.

An analysis of the ESL rolls at Northridge showed that Sandra's situation is not unusual. Of 166 ESL students in the seventh grade, 51 were born in the United States, according to the records. There were some students whose country of origin was blank, so the percentage of home-grown non-English speakers may be even larger.

Laurie Wada, an ESL teacher, said "border-hopping is a huge problem" for the Spanish-speaking students. Families with roots south of the border frequently take their children out of school, she said, for long visits home.

In the first semester of this year alone, 34 students returned to Mexico.

"If you're born here and grow up speaking Spanish, you're automatically put in bilingual classes," said Wada. "I don't always agree with that. If they're born here, they should be placed in English classes, because a relative can help" with their language skills.

Wada and the other beginning ESL teacher, Victor Galdos, conduct their classes mostly in English, in part, they say, because there are 17 nationalities in ESL, from the Philippines, to the Middle East, to Russia.

Ten teachers speak Spanish, which program coordinator Levin said isn't enough, considering there are 300 ESL students.

The ESL teachers have, in some ways, a more intimate relationship with their students, in part because the children have often led lives of severe deprivation. Levin told of the little Iranian girl who went around to all her teachers, politely asking each one if they could help her mother find a job.

"We tried," said Levin, "but there wasn't much we could do."

Teachers often dip into their own pockets to help out a particularly deprived student. They still talk about the boy who showed up a couple of years ago in a pair of girls shoes his mother had bought for him for $1.50 at a swap meet. The boy was taunted mercilessly until the teachers came to his aid with a new pair.

On the day before the Christmas break in December, the ESL teachers got together to spring a surprise for Jose Gonzales, 14, a quiet boy who wears a T-shirt and tennis shoes to class. Jose had been in the United States only one year. His father worked for a gardening service, and the family of six lived in a house with 10 other people. Jose and his siblings all slept in the same room.

The boy said he had asked for pants, socks and shoes for Christmas, but he was hoping for a little stuffed bear too, though he wasn't sure he would get anything.

Grace Hutchings, one of the math teachers, went out to buy a present for Jose and wrapped it in bright red paper. She and Vanessa Culp were not sure how to get it to him because they didn't want it to look like a donation.

So they concocted a story, and Hutchings strode to the front of the class in her aristocratic, straight-backed way and announced that she was going to give a prize to the student who had shown outstanding progress in class.

This was only partly a fable because Jose's English was coming along very well. When he was announced as the winner, his small smile grew a bit wider though he kept his eyes firmly set on the ground. Culp gave him a big hug.

The present was a pair of Levis, three pair of underwear and a pair of white socks.

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