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Learning the Hard Way

Burns School, at 25th and Central Park, is a typical Chicago public school; otherwise it's terrific.


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Most mornings Leo Saucedo has breakfast at his grandmother's house in the Little Village neighborhood and then walks two blocks to the Robert Burns Elementary School at 25th and Central Park. He arrives at 8:55, just before the nine o'clock bell. Leo, a short, amiable eighth grader, sees no sense in getting to Burns any earlier. The three-story red-brick school has no playground, and the line to pass through the recently installed metal detectors is the shortest right before class starts.

Burns is a typical Chicago public school, worse than some but better than others, characterized by needy students, large and sometimes unruly classes, low test scores, and a cramped and decaying physical plant. During the 1960s, Burns became so crowded that a new school--Lazaro Cardenas-- had to be built down the block. Today Cardenas runs through third grade, and Burns serves as a middle school.

In 1990, at the dawn of school reform, voters elected their first local school councils, which were charged with, among other things, the ability to hire and fire principals. The activist United Neighborhood Organization managed to get its candidates elected in Little Village schools, and the Burns council quickly sacked Donald Kriz, a longtime principal who'd both attended Burns and taught there. Kriz was white and didn't speak Spanish. The decision prompted a one-day student boycott, but the council stuck to its decision and appointed Olga Villalba, the present principal.

"Children come here to get the best of everything," says Villalba. "We teach them to be proud of their ethnic heritage, and we try to motivate them to achieve instead of turning into gangbangers."

Burns students are predominantly poor, many from immigrant families. Half the youngsters attend bilingual classes, and 60 percent of the eighth graders fail to meet reading standards on state-mandated tests (though Burns was not one of the 109 lowest-performing schools that the Board of Education placed on academic probation on Monday).

The school sits on the boundary between two street gangs, the Latin Kings and the 26s (named for 26th Street, the commercial artery of Little Village, and pronounced "two sixes"). "By third or fourth grade all the kids here know the gang signs," says Randy Shuma, a sixth-grade science teacher. "In any graduating class there are one or two kids you know who will meet a foul end, landing in prison or a coffin, or else running off to Mexico after having killed someone." In the spring of 1995 an eighth grader was indicted in a gang-related murder near the school.

Five years ago, when gangs were more noticeable at Burns, the local school council required that students wear uniforms--white tops and blue bottoms--and last year it voted to install the metal detectors.

Leo Saucedo doesn't object to the metal detectors as much as the uniforms. "The uniforms are stupid," he says. "You can't even wear a white T-shirt with a Bulls sign on it. We all know we're not supposed to show gang colors, but why not give a kid detention if he has them on?" Leo says the gangs are a pesky but tolerable presence in the eighth grade. "The gang members are like bees. You don't bother them, and they won't bother you."

But Leo and his friends feel their education has been compromised by their classmates. "Some of these kids, I don't know how they pass," says Leo. "In math class the teacher has to go over the multiplication tables, something you should have learned in fifth grade. I'm not saying I'm the smartest kid in the world, but it's frustrating to be stuck on multiplying when we're supposed to be doing algebra."

There's also the constant problem of unruly behavior. "A few kids just seem to cause a lot of trouble," says Emilio Davalos, Leo's friend. "They throw things around--spitballs and cut-up pieces of erasers--and they mouth off to teachers." One recent morning a pair of boys nearly came to blows in math class, requiring Mrs. Jackowiac, a tough-talking, diminutive instructor, to stand between them. Later, in social studies, Mr. Kandelec was discussing how American industry grew after the Civil War when one of the boys suddenly barked at the other: "You fucking liar."

Lunch at Burns means 15 minutes in the basement cafeteria, two rooms without a real kitchen. The meals are trucked to Burns and reheated by attendants. "The food is terrible," says Leo. "Sometimes it's cold, or if it's hot it's all burned. It's never just right. You've just gotten finished with your apple when they tell you to get up, go to the bathroom, and get back to class." Juvenal Hernandez, another boy in Leo's circle, skips lunch altogether, waiting for his mother to prepare hot dogs at home when she returns from work.

In the afternoon the boys settle into their homerooms for spelling or health. "Things slow down then, and we get to talk with our friends," says Leo. There follows either art, library study, music, or gym. The library has few books, and the computer terminals haven't been hooked up yet. The gymnasium is so small that Villalba has to schedule holiday assemblies over a day and a half.

School lets out at 2:30, and Leo and his friends skip the after-school hour of tutoring and craft classes offered in the Burns social center and head home. They usually go straight home because their parents want them off the streets. "I strongly believe that if you raise your kids the right way, you can prevent them from joining a gang or doing drugs," says Leo Saucedo Sr., a mechanic at a factory in Wheaton. "I have a lot of confidence in Leo, but if for a minute I didn't we'd probably move to the suburbs."

On Wednesday and Friday, Leo, Juvenal, Emilio, and several other boys gather at 3:30 to play football on the street in front of Leo's house. After an hour or two, heavy with sweat, the players break and repair to a hamburger joint on 26th Street. Some-times the group sticks around to gossip and eat, but more often they take their burgers back to Leo's to watch TV on a small used set he bought for $5 and keeps in the basement.

Juvenal, Leo, and Emilio say they do at least 90 minutes of homework every school night, meeting a newly promulgated Board of Education recommendation for eighth-graders. They also watch up to three hours of television, and--aside from Emilio, who enjoys mysteries--they do little recreational reading. "I'm not into reading," Juvenal explains. "My sister tried to push me into trying books, but 15 minutes into them I get bored. Outside of school I have to have something that excites me."

The boys will be leaving Burns with some fond memories. Emilio is proud that he played on the junior-varsity basketball team. Last year Leo competed in the Academic Olympics, a citywide contest in which teams of elementary students test their knowledge against each other. During the regional quarterfinals at Curie High School the Burns team was stumped on the question "What's the most common fowl in the world?" Leo sounded the buzzer and made a blind guess. "I said 'the chicken,' which was right," he says. Though Burns went on to lose the round, Leo considers the answer his finest moment in grammar school.

The boys are leaving Burns with some deficits as well. While the school has two computer labs, they are largely devoted to assisting disadvantaged students; Leo and his friends barely know how to type or use a PC. The only research project the boys recall was done for Mr. Shuma, who had his students build bottle rockets and construct models of dinosaurs. Leo researched the raptor and made a model of a bird of prey out of clay and toothpicks. "Mr. Shuma gave us a taste of high school," says Leo.

The neighborhood high school is Farragut Career Academy, which has an uneven reputation and is perhaps best known for its basketball team. Since becoming principal two years ago Edward Guerra has cracked down on gangs at Farragut, but Leo, Juvenal, and Emilio view the place with suspicion and have no intention of going there if they don't have to.

An open enrollment policy in the public schools entitles the boys to apply wherever there's space, but the ticket to a better school will be their grades and their scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, which Chicago students take each spring. Emilio's Iowa scores last year placed him two and a half years ahead of the national norm in math and eighteen months ahead in reading. He hopes to win admission to competitive Whitney Young Magnet High School. The prospects for Leo and Juvenal, with lower scores, are not as promising.

"I doubt I can get into Whitney Young," says Leo. "I don't know if you've heard of Saint Ignatius. It's a very good Catholic school where I also probably can't go. So I'll apply to Curie and maybe some other schools. Last comes Farragut, where they have to take you."

Leo and his friends see high school as a promised land. "You get an hour for lunch I'm told," Leo says, "and you get to go wherever you want. Now there's no choice--if you want to go to the bathroom at Burns you have to raise you hand, and if the teacher says no you have to hold it until you get home. In high school they give you more responsibility. It's going to be cool there."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Emilio Davalos, Leo Saucedo, Juvenal Hernandez photo by Kathy Richard.


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