4 schools, 5 years: One family’s moving story

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Four schools in five years. That’s how many times Edra Sanders transferred her children to escape random shootings, break-ins and environments that fueled her drug addiction. Then one day, she discovered that her children had learned how to light up.

“I was so upset, I cried. I stopped smoking PCP, smoking cigarettes, drinking, everything.”

With the help of social service agencies, Sanders brought stability into her family’s life. With the help of a firm but compassionate school principal, she then got her children under control.

The Sanders children—Marcus, Seanderrick, and twins Terrance and Tenil, now aged 19, 13 and 12—all started school at Grant Elementary, which sits in the middle of the Rockwell Gardens housing project on the city’s West Side. While Sanders, now 44, had lived most of her life in Rockwell, she recognized that it was not a good place to raise children.

“It was really rough over there,” she recalls. “People didn’t too much bother me because I was in a gang then, but innocent people were getting killed all the time. About six or seven people I knew died while I was living there. Once, a dead body was found in the laundry room. Gangs had robbed, killed and stripped a man and left him in there. I was really upset because my kids, who were little at the time, used to peek in there on their way up to the apartment.”

Then, when a teacher was killed in the parking lot at Grant and a student was shot near the school, Sanders decided she had had enough. In July 1988, the family moved to a Section 8 subsidized apartment at 87th and Burley on the Southeast Side. At the time, the children were so young, they didn’t seem to mind leaving their home or their school, Sanders says. In retrospect, Sanders sees that she had made a bad choice. “It was a bad neighborhood. People sold drugs, and I was on drugs, so it was not the best environment for me to be in.”

In September, she enrolled the children in J. N. Thorpe Elementary School. Soon, the school’s teachers starting calling about Terrance’s behavior—he couldn’t seem to get along with anyone at the school and would start fights. And Seanderrick simply walked out of class a couple times and came home.

“But I was on drugs and even pronounced dead twice from drug overdoses, so I didn’t pay too much attention to what the kids did or what the school had to say,” Sanders says softly. “I was not in my right mind.”

However, two break-ins caught Sanders’ attention and got her to thinking about moving again. “Both times it was early in the morning, and we were all in bed. The first time, I was coming out of the bathroom, and saw a pair of legs and feet running out of the apartment; the second time, burglars came in through my boys’ bedroom window.

“Marcus heard them,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, are my children awake? Are they all right?’ I had to stay at Burley for a year and a half because it was hard to find another apartment, but I knew I had to leave. Even though I was on those drugs, I was still thinking about my children’s safety.”

‘Suspended left and right’

In September 1991, Sanders moved her family about a mile north to 75th and Phillips, in South Shore. The children started school at Bradwell Elementary a couple of weeks late.

“My children had to walk seven and a half blocks to Bradwell, but I liked it,” says Sanders. “When I didn’t have a coat in the winter, the dean of students arranged for me to get one.”

Seanderrick adapted quickly; in 3rd grade, he was reading out of a 5th-grade reader. But Terrance had become an even angrier child, and was still having trouble adjusting to school.

“I was still on drugs, and their grades went up and down,” Sanders says. “Seanderrick started losing interest in reading, and all of them were getting into so much trouble. They were suspended left and right. They had a non-caring attitude. I know their [school] process was my fault. Their father was not involved with them.”

Further, Sanders adds, she was having problems with her landlord. “I knew I had to look for another apartment again.”

‘They were angry kids’

JoeD Reaves, Bradwell’s dean of students, says the Sanders children were good kids. “But they were angry kids who had a problem with authority. We tried hard just to get them to integrate into the student population, and before they left they were doing better. We showed them that someone cared, and they began to make vast improvements.

“I really didn’t want to see those children leave,” he adds. “I even asked their mother why she was taking them out of the school after we were making such good progress.”

Sanders says she was not thinking clearly, that drugs still controlled her life. But not for much longer.

Sanders says when she smoked PCP, she always sent the children out of the apartment so they wouldn’t know what she was doing.

On one occasion in July 1991, she recalls, “I laid out seven or eight PCP sticks to smoke. I smoked five and went to the bathroom. When I came back, they were gone. I kept thinking ‘I know I’m high, but I know I had three left.’ Then I heard giggling. My kids had smoked the last three. They knew how to light them and everything. My babies were high.”

And that was more than Sanders could bear; she stopped doing drugs and started going to church instead.

But the problems with her landlord persisted. In August 1992, she packed up her family again. But this time, she moved to a nice, secure building at 75th and Eggleston in Englewood, enrolling her three younger children at Harvard School, which is only two blocks away. Marcus, a special education student, was enrolled in South Center Community Services.

This move was a good one, says Sanders. She began seeing a counselor from Youth Guidance through the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and a psychiatrist at Chicago Osteopathic Medical Center. She also began to get more involved in her children’s lives and take more interest in what they did in school.

Exerting control

Although the children had begun to make progress at Bradwell, at Harvard they slipped back into doing what they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it. However, whenever Harvard Principal Laura Williams called to tell their mother that her children were in trouble or when Williams marched them home, Sanders rushed to the defense of her children. She accused Williams and everyone else at the school of mistreating and picking on them—because that’s what the children had told her.

Sanders says she was filled with so much guilt over her earlier parenting that she felt she had to protect her children from the world.

At the time, though, it was the world that needed protection from her children. They repeatedly terrorized the neighborhood by throwing rocks at businesses; they triple-teamed and beat up other students; and they cursed teachers and other school employees. Terrance was even suspended for punching the school’s security officer in the stomach and for beating a student so badly that the school had to call an ambulance.

“Once again, they were getting into trouble and suspended, but I was making excuses for them,” says Sanders. “Because of what I had done in the past, I was overcompensating for them. It was important that I show them I loved them, and this was one way to show them. I took their side. I didn’t know I was being manipulated.”

Finally, Laura Williams had had enough. During one heated exchange, Williams recalls, “I told her I had enough of her telling me how this school was mistreating her children. I told her we were bending over backwards to work with them. I was not going to take her jumping down our throats anymore.”

Sanders says her Youth Guidance counselor had been telling her the same things about the children. So with Williams weighing in, Sanders began to pay attention to what they did and what they said and soon realized they were manipulative and out of control.

To the children’s surprise, Sanders and Williams called a family summit. The two adults told the three children that their mom was behind their principal and that their antics were going to stop.

Sanders also began paying closer attention to homework, trimmed the children’s television time and frequently communicated with the school to check on her children.

Terrance was transferred to a more appropriate special education program at Cuffee, where he and his mother say his behavior and grades have improved.

“I got a medal for being on the honor roll last year, and I got awards for reading, perfect attendance and doing my homework,” says Terrance proudly. “I’m also not getting into any trouble here. Cuffee is my favorite school.”

Seanderrick and Tenil have calmed down considerably.

“I got suspended twice in 4th grade, once in 5th grade and once in 6th grade,” says Seanderrick. “I haven’t got suspended at all since I’ve been in 7th grade.”

Says Tenil, “I really had a bad attitude, because I was sad and angry about having to leave my friends all the time. But now I have more friends, and I really like my teachers at Harvard. I don’t get into as much trouble like I used to.”

Williams attests to that. She says while Tenil still gets into mischief, she is not making as many trips to the principal’s office as she did when she started at Harvard. “She’s cut back to once a day now,” laughs Williams.

And while the children’s grades are still below average, both have improved academically.

“Seanderrick has gone from handing in no homework to doing almost all of his homework, and he’s very seldom absent or tardy,” says teacher Dan Swierczynski. “I’d say he’s turning into a solid C student. He’s really a good boy, even though he’s sometimes moody and has some bad days. But he is not a malicious kid, nor is he intentionally bad.”

Swierczynski notes Seanderrick surprised him with a gift on his birthday. It was a box of chocolates in a heart-shaped box, which the boy explained, with some embarrassment, was the only kind the store stocked.

Sanders now plans to stay put until her children enroll in high school. If she had to move, she says, she’d fight to keep her kids at Harvard.

“I had so many problems before,” says Sanders with a sigh. “And I still have them. I’m diabetic, have kidney and thyroid problems, chronic laryngitis and suffer with obesity all because of those drugs. But I let these kids know I now expect them to respect themselves, respect their teachers and get an education because that’s their ticket to a better life.”

Williams has her fingers crossed: “I hope they don’t move. We know these kids, and they know us. We have a relationship with them. They know we’re not going to put up with their stuff. If they go to another school, they’ll have to start all over again.”