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February 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 5

Where Homeboys Feel at Home in School

Four months after becoming principal of Webb Middle School in Austin, Texas, my worst nightmare came true. Shortly after dismissing students for the day, I learned that gang members were exchanging gunfire on a street outside the school.
After calling the police, I rushed outside, where students were hugging the ground to avoid flying bullets. Thankfully, police quickly apprehended the “shooters,” and none of my students was hurt. Another consolation: the culprits turned out to be high school dropouts, not students at Webb.
The enormous relief that teachers and I felt was tempered, however, by some discomfiting facts. Some of my students, boys and girls alike, clearly stood in awe of the young men who were willing to put their lives on the line for their “homeboys.” Whether formally in the gangs or not, a growing number of Webb students were beginning to wear gang colors and flash gang signs in the school hallways.
Though I quickly banned wearing colors and flashing signs at Webb, it was all too clear that some of the boys were joining gangs. Their bruised and cut faces were telltale signs of their membership: the result of “walking the line,” an initiation ceremony in which a gang “wannabe” has to stand his ground against the flailing fists and kicking feet of the gang members he wants to join.
Again and again, I would bring these boys to my office. “Why do you let yourselves be beat to a pulp just to join a group of boys who are very likely going to wind up in prison or in an early grave?” I asked them. They would glance at me and then to the floor before answering. “We protect each other, Miss. We're family. Homeboys care what happens to each other. Nobody else does.”
“Your teachers care what happens to you,” I always insisted. Teachers at Webb work long hours and are very dedicated to our students. How could these boys not understand that we care for them, that we want them to succeed? One day in my office, a boy explained. “Miss, in school we are 'nothings,'” he said in a courteous but matter-of-fact manner. “In a gang, we are somebodies.”

An Antidote to Weak Self-Identity

The boy who told me about “nothings” and “somebodies,” a bright, handsome 12-year-old, spoke volumes. His words confirmed what we're learning about why some youngsters are drawn to gangs, even though they know that it's a path to almost certain destruction.
Many young people who turn to gangs have a weak sense of self-identity (Vigil 1988). The support and loyalty that gang members extend to one another is to many youngsters a powerful antidote to feelings of being a nothing in what they see as an uncaring world. The gang provides a sense of self-identity grounded in the security of a group-identity.
Educators may find it difficult to fathom why boys and girls would turn to a gang to surmount feelings of alienation, when schools exist to prepare them to function successfully in the world. Why do these youths not recognize the school as their ally in securing the tools to control their fate?
At least part of the reason is that many of these youngsters have repeatedly been labeled by schools as failures (Laska and Juarez 1992). To some young people, school transcripts laden with F's are just one more confirmation that no one—in the school, the home, or the community—really thinks they have any value. No one, that is, except the gang.
Gangs appear to be effective at meeting the identity needs of many youngsters in difficult environments. And many of our students face extraordinary challenges. More than 85 percent of them qualify for the free or reduced-cost lunch program, and 65 percent of our students come from single-parent homes, where oftentimes the parent leaves the house at 5 a.m. to go to a low-paying job, not returning home until late at night.
Obviously, however, not all young people in such circumstances join gangs. How do they meet their identity needs in more productive and healthy ways?
Heath and McLaughlin (1993) studied the reasons for the success of youngsters “whose home and community lives should have foretold disaster.” They found that many such youngsters drew support from neighborhood-based organizations that helped them to build a strong sense of self. The youngsters touched by these organizations felt no need to join gangs or engage in other forms of destructive behavior because they were too busy preparing for a better future.
The organizations studied by Heath and McLaughlin, such as YMCA/YWCA groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, and various civic and church-affiliated youth groups, were quite varied. But a common thread among the organizations was their focus on helping young people build a positive sense of identity. They created the conditions for the boys and girls to “do something and be someone in the eyes of others” (Heath and McLaughlin 1993). In these places of hope, there were no symbols of failure imposed by an official authority; there were instead many opportunities to keep trying until youngsters achieved success.

An All-Out Effort

After the incident of gang violence on the street outside Webb Middle School, we decided to make an all-out effort to deal with the problem of gangs in and around our school. We knew we had to take some immediate and positive action beyond simply banning colors and signing.
Our vision was to provide ways for each of our students to “do something and be something in the eyes of others.” One key idea was to form clubs that would meet during the school day. School staff would serve as sponsors, providing their time and expertise. We were determined to find something of interest to every student.
With the help of students, we brainstormed a variety of different clubs, addressing virtually every interest a middle school child might have. Before long, the roster of clubs grew to almost 50 in number, including: Video, Yoga, Floral Design (yes, the boys liked it!), Sports, International Pen Pal, Astronaut, Ceramics, Science, Movie, We Make a Difference (visiting senior citizens homes), Drama, Rugby, Soccer, Reading, Math Counts, Singing, Macintosh, Poetry, Create Your Own Futures, Environmental, Ham Radio, Walking, Fishing, Ultimate Frisbee, Chess, Dominoes, Tejano Dance, Jazz Band, Publications, Scholarship, and so on.
We adjusted our class schedule to make time for club meetings to accommodate everyone, and students chose the clubs they wanted to join. The key idea was that there were no failures in these clubs, only opportunities to succeed. Some students who were making F's in their academic courses demonstrated extraordinary abilities in the clubs, and we began to see success in the clubs carry over to success in the academic classroom.
To supplement the establishment of clubs, we actively sought community volunteers to help us at Webb. We encouraged employees of nearby businesses to tutor our students, act as mentors, or simply share their time. Some local professionals offered their help.
For example, the local Young Lawyers Association sponsored a series of sports tournaments for all students (not just those on the organized school teams). Everyone was a winner in these tournaments.
Such partnerships benefited both students and volunteers. For our students, some of whom had never met people from outside their immediate neighborhoods, new friendships began to open doors to exciting new career opportunities. For adults, the mentor program offered an outlet for many people who had wanted to help our students but were uncertain about how to become involved.
Other benefits became apparent as well. Soon after establishing the club program and inviting volunteer mentors, we began to see sharp reductions in our truancy and dropout rates. During my first year as principal, these rates were worse than the benchmarks designated by the state. Some students were spending their days in and around vacant buildings and lots, places where gang activity often breeds.
After our first year of clubs, the truancy and dropout rates dropped to almost zero. Instead of gang colors, our students were donning the colors of club uniforms donated by neighborhood businesses now eager to help our students. And the only signs flashed by students were smiles when they saw our volunteers enter the building. Clearly, our school clubs and volunteer mentors were beginning to meet the identity needs that compelled some youngsters to seek out gang membership in the first place.

Another Look at Academics

Our success with the club and volunteer mentor programs led us to take another look at our academic program. We decided to make our instructional strategies more activities-based.
For example, instead of teaching math exclusively out of the book, which encourages passive learning, we began to develop activities that pushed students to participate more actively. We had math students build model bridges, and we linked the building of the bridges to lessons in science, social studies, and language arts. We tried many such strategies, with the common goal being that students would participate in classwork in a way that ensured their capacity to demonstrate what they'd learned and to “be something” in the eyes of others.
Additionally, we began to move away from the F grade in our academic program, and this year we abolished it entirely. Our students most susceptible to gang membership hate the F grade, and many stop putting forth effort after receiving one F.
We now give students who have not achieved sufficiently an I for incomplete. The transition in grading has raised difficult issues: What grade do you enter for students who never demonstrate they've learned the curriculum? How do you provide time for reteaching and retesting when students' work is incomplete? These problems are tough, but not insurmountable (Juarez 1994). In any case, some administrative disorder is still a better alternative than continuing to fail students, robbing them of the chance to build a positive self-identity.
One way to gain the flexibility needed to reteach and retest material is to use a year-round schedule. One reason the F grade has persisted is that education is wedded to the rigid nine-month school year and the six-weeks, back-to-back, grading scheme. This traditional format almost guarantees there will be no time or structure for reteaching and retesting.
This year, Webb became the first secondary school in our district to embark on year-round schooling. One advantage is that it affords us time during the intersessions (breaks) to work with students who need extra help to master learning objectives. During the intersessions, we also offer enrichment activities for all students, and we expand the activities of the clubs and the volunteer mentors program.

From Nobody to Somebody

Our efforts at Webb Middle School are not driven exclusively by a belief that what we do will reduce gang violence or deter our potential gang wannabes from gang membership. Our clubs and volunteer mentors, and our changes in grading and the school calendar, are strategies we believe will benefit all students, the vast majority of whom will never consider joining a gang. Nevertheless, we believe these efforts will make a difference in the impact of gangs on our students' lives.
Whatever the causes for their poor sense of self-identity (and the reasons are multiple and complex), gang members and gang wannabes have special learning needs, styles, and problems. When such students receive positive opportunities to “be someone and do something in the eyes of others,” they will be too busy (and too happy) to feel the need to join a gang.
References

Heath, S. B., and M. W. McLaughlin. (1993). “Building Identities for Inner-City Youth.” In Identity & Inner-City Youth: Beyond Ethnicity and Gender, edited by S. B. Heath and M. W. McLaughlin. New York: Teachers College Press.

Juarez, T. (1994). “Mastery Grading to Serve Student Learning in the Middle Grades.” Middle School Journal 26, 1: 37-41.

Laska, J., and T. Juarez. (1992). Grading and Marking in American Schools: Two Centuries of Debate. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas.

Vigil, J. D. (1988). Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern California. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Tina Juarez has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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