Reading, writing, and decolonization: Albizu Campos High School, a controversial alternative for Hispanic youth | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Reading, writing, and decolonization: Albizu Campos High School, a controversial alternative for Hispanic youth

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When Robertico Medina dropped out of Roberto Clemente High School four years ago to escape the gang warfare and the teachers' inattention, he nearly joined the Army. Only at his mother's urging did he enroll in West Town's Doctor Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School. But he was still reluctant to get up and go to school. Marvin Garcia, the school's director, had to go to his house and literally drag him out of bed.

"When Marvin would come to pick me up, I would hide behind the curtains and see him coming. Then I'd go back to bed and pretend I was sleeping," Robertico remembers.

Such personal attention from teachers, along with an increasing pride in Puerto Rican history and culture, kept Robertico in school. When he graduated last spring, he became the first of his five siblings--the rest are older--to complete high school. He is now a freshman at Northeastern Illinois University.

Albizu Campos, a private school in its 16th year, shines in an age when Hispanic youth, particularly Puerto Ricans, have the highest dropout rate of any minority group. While the dropout rate among Puerto Rican students in West Town is between 65 and 75 percent, more than 90 percent of Albizu Campos students finish school. All eight graduates from the last two years are attending college now.

Director Garcia isn't a bit shy about promoting Albizu Campos as a model for Latino youth in a society uncertain how to educate the growing number of Hispanics. "We offer the advantage of being bilingual and bicultural. Young people can come here and feel at ease. They can learn their history and culture in an environment conducive to learning," Garcia says.

But Albizu Campos's philosophy doesn't stop with bilingualism and biculturalism. Ever since the school opened, an important and controversial element has been its support for Puerto Rican independence and its alleged ties to the FALN Puerto Rican independence movement. History and English teacher Ferd Eggan calls this the "decolonization model," as opposed to the approach used at Latino Youth, another private Chicago alternative school for Latinos, which Eggan says stresses integration and the "I'm OK, you're OK" philosophy. The Albizu Campos teachers and staff believe that by stressing the importance of Puerto Rican independence, they can break the mentality of welfare dependency and low self-esteem that they believe is responsible for many dropouts.

This philosophy has not made Albizu Campos a favorite with U.S. government agencies. In addition to battling the problems of drugs, gangs, and poverty, Albizu Campos has battled the FBI and the U.S. Department of Education, both of which have, directly or indirectly, implied that the school teaches terrorism.

Albizu Campos has been controversial from the start. The impetus to found it came from a group of eight students kicked out of the old Tuley High School for leading a student strike over the lack of bilingual education and Puerto Rican history classes. Since then, its enrollment has grown to between 30 and 40, and it has moved from a church basement to an old film-processing center at 1671 North Claremont, where it shares a colorful facility with the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center. Brightly painted portraits of 14 Puerto Ricans imprisoned for their political activities cover the building's exterior. Inside, the walls are crowded with posters vividly supporting both the Puerto Rican cause ("Libertad Para La FALN" and "Viva Puerto Rico Libre y Socialista") and other struggles ("Repression Breeds Resistance: Chicano-Mexicano, Puerto Rican, Black, Native American"). The library features crafts from Nicaragua, displays of newspaper articles on FALN members, and pictures of Puerto Rican leaders--such as Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, for whom the school is named, a leader of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico in the first half of this century. He spent 24 of his last 28 years (he died in 1965) in prison for his political activities. Although he's best known in the United States for the fact that, in 1950, two of his followers attempted to assassinate then-President Harry Truman (following a National Guard attack on Jayuya, Puerto Rico), among Puerto Ricans he's widely revered as a leader of the independence movement.

Some of the students may have been reminded of their history lessons on Jayuya when, in June of 1983, about 70 FBI agents, Chicago police, and members of the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement, wearing black jumpsuits and baseball caps, burst into the center at 5 AM. (The raid occurred shortly after the arrest of four FALN members, who were charged with seditious conspiracy, including plans to bomb two Chicago military recruitment centers.) The officials were apparently looking for evidence to substantiate rumors that the school and center were actively involved in FALN support. As bewildered and outraged students and community members gathered outside the school later that day, the FBI ransacked the building, allegedly destroying $25,000 worth of equipment (including a computer used for school and community publications), and seized school records. Although they found no substantial evidence, FBI agents nevertheless issued news releases listing the school as one of several locations searched in relation to terrorist activities. Later Dan Webb, then the U.S. Attorney acting on behalf of the Department of Justice, was forced by community pressure to issue a formal apology for the suggestion of a link between terrorist activities and the school.

In 1985, Albizu Campos was selected as one of the exemplary private schools of the year in a program run jointly by the Council for American Private Education (CAPE) and the U.S. Department of Education. Ferd Eggan, who wrote the application for the award, recalls, "I tried to be very clear that the school supported Puerto Rican self-determination--freedom from control--that that was part of the curriculum, but not imposed."

The school's politics didn't play a part in the awards process until after Channel Two ran a three-day series on the school and the cultural center, interspersing shots of the school with shots of FALN members at trial. (At that time, the four arrested in 1983 were being tried.) Albizu Campos was, as the anchor put it, teaching students to "respect the activities of terrorists." Shortly after the series ran, the school was notified by the Department of Education that it was withdrawing the award temporarily, pending further investigation.

CAPE sent a new team of educators to observe, and they again decided that the school deserved the award. Their reports stressed the alternative Albizu Campos provided to the gangs, drugs, and violence common to the neighborhood. The affirmation was unanimous. However, five hours before the 1986 graduation ceremony at which school officials planned to announce the award, the Department of Education told the school, offering no explanation, that the award was being permanently rescinded.

CAPE executive director Bob Smith stresses his program's high regard for the school's academic excellence. "I give it [Albizu Campos] very, very high marks for the kind of education it is giving in a very depressed area of Chicago, where families and kids have all sorts of problems."

The Department of Education's Office of School Improvement, which runs the exemplary school program, declined to comment on the Albizu Campos controversy. The awards program has been reorganized so that the department has more control; a panel appointed by the Department of Education now decides which schools to visit and which receive the award, not CAPE, although CAPE has some input. Ferd Eggan says the controversy over Albizu Campos prompted this change, but Smith says that that incident was not related to the program's revised organization.

The school's students, and their friends and family members, still joke about the radical reputation it has. Robertico Medina says, "When Marvin would pick me up for school, my brother used to jump in front of the van and say 'Hey you, you better not be teaching my brother those communist things!'"

"People think they teach us how to make bombs," says 16-year-old Lisa Ayala. "But when I bring my friends here, they realize they're wrong."

To Lisa, the independence movement is not important, although one reason she came to the school was to learn about her island's history. Other students, such as 17-year-old Lisa Segarra, actually oppose Puerto Rican independence. "It's good to learn about it, but I don't support it. They [FALN members] are going too far."

Still others, such as 15-year-old Maria Rejdukowski, are active independistas. (Maria's grandmother, Alejandrina Torres, was one of the four arrested in 1983, and along with Maria's aunt and uncle, arrested in 1980, is now imprisoned.) Maria refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance at her Catholic grammar school because she does not consider herself a North American.

But all the students seem to agree that the education they receive at Albizu Campos is better than what they would get in any other school, public or private. They stress the personal attention they receive from teachers, in classes often no bigger than six or eight students. Even if they don't support independence, they say the fact that they are learning about their history and culture--in Spanish, if their English isn't adequate--makes them proud to be Puerto Rican and more eager to learn. The students' pride is also increased by the large role they play in running the school; they sit on the board, help write the rules, raise funds, and publicize events in the community and at other high schools.

On the first day of school in September, Ferd Eggan knows each of his eight first-period English students by name, and they call him Ferd. They begin class by reading excerpts from a book called The Me Nobody Knows, a collection of children's voices from the ghetto. Each student reads an excerpt; Ferd helps one girl who stumbles over the word "noise," giving her the Spanish translation. The students point out grammatical errors, such as "he be walking down the street." Although the students giggle at the mistake, Ferd points out that Black English is a dialect that should be respected, even as Puerto Rican English should. "You've all had a teacher who has said, 'That's not proper English,'" Eggan tells the class. "That's a lie. Proper English is white-people English, used by people in power, like television announcers. Have you ever heard one of them say 'President Reagan be walking down the street?'"

The students then begin to keep a journal in which Eggan encourages them to write their innermost thoughts. He promises not to read the raw versions, only revisions. "It doesn't have to sound pretty," he says. One young man asks, "Can we write, "I'm going to be a future member of the FALN?'" "You can write, 'I want to cut that teacher's goddamn head off,'" Eggan responds. "You can write about sexual fantasies. Whatever!"

Eggan, a teacher at the school for eight years and also its codirector and accountant, explains after class that his goal in English class is first for the students to "validate their own language," which can then become a basis for learning another.

Puerto Rican history is a new subject for most of the students in Jose Hernandez's class. With some exceptions, the students know little about their native land. Hernandez is used to this: at the beginning of each school year, he says, many students "don't have a good understanding of how Puerto Rico developed as a nation. We try to emphasize that if they understand where they come from, they can better understand the problem of Puerto Rico, and their own problems."

The problem in this Thursday morning class is not a lack of participation but a wealth of questions; the answer to each could merit an entire period. For example, after Hernandez tells the class about Puerto Rico's wealth, its mineral deposits and rich soil for farming, one student asks bluntly, "Well, if Puerto Rico is so rich, what are we doing over here?"

Fifteen-year-old Catalina Torres, daughter of Alejandrina Torres, offers an answer: "A lot of people come here thinking they'll get a job. That's not true."

Adds Hernandez: "It's a topic we'll be looking at all year. Many Puerto Ricans have been told Puerto Rico is not rich. Colonizers don't have the people's interests at heart. They're only interested in people in order to make money off them."

Although the students are interested in the present, Hernandez gently pulls them back to Puerto Rico's roots, tying the island's history to their own. He tells them, for example, that they are a blend of black, Indian, and Spanish blood. "That means I'm black?" asks one girl incredulously. "You have black blood in you, yes," Hernandez answers.

Students are encouraged not only to ask questions, but also to answer them. When the class is discussing the Spanish colonizers, one student recently arrived from Puerto Rico, Nilsa Fe Corretjer, tells in Spanish what she knows about the conquerors, holding the class spellbound with a story of Spanish baptismal rites. Other students translate for those who don't understand Spanish. Nilsa Fe's family is related to Juan Antonio Corretjer, the late Puerto Rican revolutionary poet for whom the cultural center is named.

Hernandez, in his calm, soft-spoken manner, ends the three-hour class with a forceful message. "Today a lot of people have problems with violence [within the independence movement]. But many people believe we can only be freed through the use of violence. Write this down, it's very important: Violence was used in the colonization of Puerto Rico. For 89 years, we have been controlled by the U.S. We are a colonized people."

Even math class is geared specifically toward these students; its teacher, Wayne Strnad, has written two books, based on his 14 years at Albizu Campos. Word problems deal with situations the students understand: unemployment, strikes, and the homeless. They use names such as Lopez and Rodriguez. Strnad says his students, who often enter Albizu Campos with a fifth- or sixth-grade math level, progress between two and four years in their first year at the school.

The school also has eight computer terminals, a complete biology laboratory set up by students (with the help of donations), a silk-screen room, and a student newspaper and yearbook. Of the 11 teachers, 3 are full-time, funded by grants. The rest schedule classes around other jobs and receive virtually no pay. The school meets its $60,000 annual budget through tuition ($465 per student per year), donations, and grants. The West Town community has come through in times of crisis. When the FBI raid caused $25,000 in damage, the community raised that amount in two weeks.

"This is a place designed to serve the needs of the Puerto Rican community," Eggan says. "When students leave here, they feel they can make a difference."

Students are apt to use the word "struggle" to describe their studies and other activities, reflecting the school's attitude that students must not be passive, that learning and coping are indeed struggles. Even learning not to be the stereotypical Latino macho is a struggle, says 16-year-old Ulysses Albarran. "I grew up in Mexico, and when I came here, I had never heard of feminism. I agree we shouldn't view women as objects, but it's a struggle."

"Machismo is still here, but they usually get better," says Caryn Creamer, the school's only Anglo student this year. "I have a Puerto Rican boyfriend, and he's better now. He used to say, 'Do this, do that.' Now he doesn't."

Another struggle is with drugs and gangs. While students say both are minimal in comparison to other area schools, they say they do exist--although not within the school. "Some kids are into drugs, yeah," says Catalina Torres. "But we're trying to help them out. We explain that their brain cells are dying."

Once a week, all the students gather in a "unity" class to discuss such problems as drugs, gangs, machismo, and discipline. "We struggle problems out," says 16-year-old Luis Martinez. "We don't kick anybody out. We give them choices, and we help them change if they want to."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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