MODESTO, CALIF. — ADRIANA'S run-down neighborhood is ruled by a deadly combination of apathy and violence. At 13, she is the leader of a group of adolescent girls, decked out in hair spray and heavy makeup, whose social life revolves around the parties and territorial wars of Modesto, Calif., gangs.
A few months ago, Adriana's best friend was brutally murdered when her boyfriend left the girl at one of these parties. The girl remains immortalized in the spray-painted graffiti that commemorates her name.
Modesto's largely Hispanic population of 172,000 is home to 43 identified gangs. Some of the primary centers for gang-related violence are schoolyards, where youths come armed with knives and guns. The schools are used by gangs as fertile recruiting grounds for adolescents coming from broken homes and living in communities with high unemployment, who are desperately looking for a sense of belonging.
Under such circumstances, academic success is not a priority, and the drop-out rate among Hispanics is 60 percent before the age of 15. Adriana currently attends the Evelyn Hanshaw Middle School, for 11-to-13-year-olds, which has undertaken one of the city's boldest attempts to keep disadvantaged children in school. While most public schools perpetuate academic failure by neglecting to consider the backgrounds of the children they are trying to teach, Hanshaw defies the traditional textbook approach to education by creating an environment that responds to the specific needs of its children - in this case a school that offers its students safety, a sense of self-worth, and a feeling of belonging.
Located across the street from the Salvation Army building, the school is built and fenced in protective concrete. Standing at the entrance, with a pocketful of pencils and a walky-talky, is principal Charles Vidal. He and two security guards are wearing burgundy jackets. They carefully monitor the students as they walk to class. One guard writes down the license number of a suspicious-looking car that slowly cruises by.
``When we first opened, I used to have groups of guys standing on the other side of the street watching. I made sure we had enough policemen to let them know who this school belongs to. Territory is important here,'' Mr. Vidal says.
When Adriana and her friends see their principal, they immediately cluster around him. ``Hey, Mr. Vidal, I'm being my personal best,'' she says.
``Glad to hear it, Adriana. Need a pencil?''
``Yeah, thanks,'' she responds.
A boy with slicked-back hair struts by with a University of California at Los Angeles sweatshirt. ``Hey Carlos, I like your shirt, good job,'' Vidal calls out. As 900 students walk to their classes, this continues to happen. Vidal greets many of them by name with a smile and occasionally a warm pat on the back, more like that of a concerned parent than an authority figure.
In a curious ritual, adolescents with don't-mess-with-me attitudes voluntarily approach their principal, smile and repeat the Hanshaw slogan - ``I'm being my personal best'' - for which they receive a yellow pencil. Vidal is an ardent believer that academic success starts with the way these kids see themselves.
``Our school mascot is the Titan - an all-powerful person known for greatness of achievement,'' he says. ``We're trying to tell these kids that they all have sleeping Titans within them, and it is our job to wake them up.''
``We are the only dependable routine in these children's lives,'' he explains. ``They have no adults who are motivating them, and it is our job to give them the hope and a sense of purpose which promote success and personal achievement. This particular school is often the best thing in these kids' lives. I have to counsel some of them before they will get on the buses to go home on Fridays.''
For the students here, school has become much more than an obligation; it's a haven. Adriana refers to her school as a ``fairy-tale land.''
``On the streets you're respected because you are big and bad, but school is our own world,'' she says. ``It's like we can be kids and they respect us. Everyone is so sweet and nice that it makes you feel good.''
Before Vidal opened the school in 1991, he interviewed hundreds of drop-outs to find out why they had left school. He discovered that there was a huge gap between what schools generally evaluate as important for students and what was specifically relevant to these children.
``The kids I spoke to could not understand how what they were learning applied to their lives on a daily basis,'' he says. ``It did not make sense to stay in school.''
Hoping to keep them in school, Vidal decided that the priority was to build an environment that took into account the needs of these street-smart kids from turbulent families and gang-plagued neighborhoods by creating a school that offered them the sense of community they were searching for.
The students are strictly forbidden to dress all in one color or wear paraphernalia that imply gang membership, such as red or blue shoelaces. Even sports-team shirts or baseball caps are forbidden.
But colors, handshakes, and slogans - all of which are used by gangs to symbolize membership and ``belonging'' on the streets - are adopted by the students for one purpose: their school and their future college education. The youths are praised and rewarded for wearing burgundy, the school color, and T-shirts with college emblems. They have their own handshake, which is supposed to represent receiving their future diplomas.
Hanshaw Middle School tries to get them to start imagining what it would be like to go to college, not by telling them how important it is, but by making them feel as if they are already there. The students are divided into seven ``neighborhoods,'' each named after one of California's state universities. The highlight of the students' year is a trip to ``their'' college, where they meet students with similar backgrounds who have stayed in school and made it to college.
``Only 3 percent of California state graduates are Hispanic. Most [of our Hispanic students] have never seen a university. You have to at least show them one, and make them feel like they can be part of one if you ever want them to get there,'' Principal Vidal says.
``Most of the parents of these children have never completed high school, and often the only books in their home are the Bible and Playboy [magazine],'' says Barbara Hickman, the science and math teacher for the ``Sonoma University'' group of students. ``And yet after one year, these kids are scoring above grade level in math and science because of the encouragement they are given and the way they are taught. The idea is to wrap what is found in textbooks around a classroom experience, something that relates to their own lives. We talk about questions such as authority and identity and then find the science, history, and English to teach it,'' Ms. Hickman says.
VIDAL and the other adults at Hanshaw call themselves ``community leaders,'' not teachers. Students are referred to as ``citizens.'' Vidal has hand-picked ``community leaders'' whom students can ``borrow character from.''
Jeff Albritton's history and English class of seventh graders has been doing projects on watershed decisions in history and is discussing how to make decisions in their own lives.
``If your parents get divorced, how do you choose which one to live with?'' Mr. Albritton asks. A shy girl answers, ``I don't know.'' Adriana says from across the classroom, ``You have to choose or else you'll end up in a foster home. Choose the one you have a better relationship with,'' she tells the girl.
``No, choose your father; he has to pay for you so you might as well live with him anyway,'' advises another student.
Albritton says that ``70 percent of these children come from single-parent families. The key is to trick these kids into learning by empowering them to learn in a way that brings in relevant issues in their lives and gets them socially active.''
Hanshaw has set up ``university clubs'' in various high schools so that former students can keep in touch with each other and their teachers. But Vidal knows that the real test for these children will come later.
``School is not neutral with regard to success,'' he says. ``Children from this kind of social background must be told by someone, at some point, what they are capable of doing, to get them curious about life. We have had over 50 school districts coming to look at our school. What worries me is that so many find this revolutionary. It seems like common sense. But few schools are doing it,'' Vidal says.
Adriana says she wants to go to college, but her fragile confidence relies on the personal dedication of her teachers and the nurturing environment they have succeeded in creating - conditions that are not easily sustained.