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An American Family: Close to Breaking 

The Aguilars face money problems, bad grades and near-constant arguing about Luis’ future

Thursday, Jul 15 2004
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Page 4 of 8

According to experts, Bola and Estephanie’s school troubles are symptomatic of a newly quantified problem — namely the harmful collateral effect of imprisonment on families. “We find that when a father is removed from a family through incarceration, kids suffer in a variety of ways,” says Todd Clear, director of doctoral studies in criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Children are less likely to stay in school. Moms are more likely to go on welfare. Teen births are more likely to occur. And when you remove a lot of males from a lot of families, the whole community becomes less stable,” adds Clear. “There’s even a tipping point at which crime goes up precipitously.”

At this, Frances laughs grimly. “Half of the women I know with kids have their men locked up,” she says. “Half. I’m not kidding. And you can always see the effect on the kids.”

THURSDAY IS PARENT-TEACHER NIGHT at Hollenbeck, and Frances intends to go. Estephanie hopes that her mother will talk some of her teachers into relenting on the U grades. Frances agrees to try. But by the time Thursday rolls around, matters have already slipped further downhill.

It seems that earlier in the week, Estephanie got a notice that she owed $68 for a lost textbook that, according to school records, she never returned in the seventh grade. If Estephanie doesn’t square the debt, she can’t go to the eighth-grade party, although she’s already paid for her ticket. Resigned to the fact that the money set aside for the graduation dress must now pay for the book, she glumly brings a wad of cash to school. But somewhere in between home and the administration office, Estephanie manages to misplace nearly $80. She has $48 left at home, but that’s $20 short of the cost of the vanished book. The next day, Thursday, is the last day to settle accounts. Before she leaves the house, Estephanie asks her mother to loan her the $20, but Frances doesn’t have the cash on her. “Then I can’t go to Six Flags,” says Estephanie, and flounces out of the house, her expression one of pure adolescent misery.

At school, however, resourceful Estephanie manages to borrow the needed $20 from a friend. But because she doesn’t have a new graduation dress, her mood turns dismal by the time she gets home, and she tells her mother not to bother with the parent-teacher conference. When Frances insists she still wants to meet with Estephanie’s teachers, the teenager throws herself on her bed and shifts tactics. The parent-teacher event was last night, she says. “You already missed it.” Besides, says Estephanie, she doesn’t want to do the stupid graduation, after all. Frances intuits that Estephanie is lying on both counts, and drives to Hollenbeck Middle School anyway.

First she learns that Estephanie’s U’s in cooperation are due primarily to absences from school, most of which occurred during various family crises: when Luis first got locked up, right after Gennisis was born, and on certain scattered other days, such as when the baby was sick and Estephanie stayed home to help her mother. The “work habits” U’s are for missed homework — most of which was missed on the days that she was absent from school. Catch-22, LAUSD style. At Frances’ urging, two of the teachers agree to do away with one U each if Estephanie completes some makeup assignments over the weekend. “I’ll make sure she does it,” says Frances, and stuffs the requisite assignment papers into her purse.

Next, Frances talks to Bola’s counselor, a petite, young woman named Ms. Barajas, who doesn’t appear to be long out of college. “My son has pure fails,” Frances begins. “Why didn’t somebody let me know that there was a problem if George was failing everything?”

Ms. Barajas frowns. “Someone should have called you for a conference . . . But don’t worry,” she says, smiling encouragingly. “With the ‘No Child Left Behind’ program, he’ll still be promoted to the seventh grade.”

“Do you really think that’s going to help my son?” asks Frances.

After Frances leaves the room, Ms. Barajas’ expression collapses. “As a counselor you want to help,” she says, “but I’ve got, maybe, 900 students on my caseload, and a lot of kids slip though the cracks. Look, right now, I’m not even sure I even have a job next year, because with the new budget, we’re told one of our counselors is going to get cut.”

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