Making a Difference : El Rancho District Scores 'Little Victories' With Migrant Pupils Who Attend School on Saturdays

Times Staff Writer

In the computer lab at North Ranchito Elementary School in Pico Rivera, third- and fourth-graders sit before brightly colored video screens, completing the day's lessons in reading and math. Across the hall, first- and second-graders work on reading and math problems under a teacher's guidance, while a health and nutrition lesson is under way a few doors down.

It seems like a regular school day. Except that it is a Saturday morning, the lessons are in Spanish as well as English, and the students are all children of migrant workers.

"One principal said, 'There's no way in heaven you're going to get kids coming in on Saturdays,' " said Irma de la Rosa, a resource specialist who supervises the federally funded migrant education program in the El Rancho Unified School District.

But after-school classes were only reaching about 12% of the district's 450 migrant students. So last year, the district experimented with Saturday classes at North Ranchito and, surprisingly, 63% of the school's migrant children attended regularly.

This year, the Saturday program was expanded to six elementary schools and two junior highs. El Rancho and the Pomona Unified School District are the only ones in Los Angeles County that have a Saturday migrant program, De la Rosa said.

Although the attendance at El Rancho has fallen to about 50%, North Ranchito Principal Andrew Sermeno says the program is making a difference.

"We don't have any hard data to show you that there is significant growth," Sermeno said. "What we do get are little victories . . . These kids are woefully behind. They typically are apathetic toward school. If they come in at all to our Saturday program, we've already made an adjustment in their behavior."

A migrant child is one who has moved across state or school district lines with a parent or guardian who is seeking seasonal work in industries such as agriculture or fishing. In California, the typical migrant child is Latino, from a low-income home where Spanish is the dominant language.

On the national average, children of migrant workers move three times a year between kindergarten and sixth grade, according to a publication of the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools. In California, unlike most other states, the trend among migrant workers is to keep the family in one place during the school year, then move for the summer months, Sermeno said.

Educators say the frequent moves interrupt the children's education and social adjustment, causing high absenteeism and contributing to a poor self-image.

"They lose a lot of confidence in themselves," said Nancy Boyd-Batstone, who counsels about 70 migrant children in a pilot program at North Ranchito and North Park Middle School, the two schools with the El Rancho district's highest percentage of migrant children.

"Much of the time they feel like they don't know what's going on. In missing school, they fall behind, which reinforces the feeling that they can't do things," she said.

As a result, less than 10% of the nation's 750,000 migrant children finish high school, according to the California Master Plan for Migrant Education.

Boyd-Batstone's pilot program will track migrant students through high school to see whether counseling will help more of them graduate. In November, she began counseling fourth- through eighth-graders in groups of eight to 10 during Saturday classes and during the week.

District officials also will be tracking students who attend the Saturday classes.

On an average Saturday, about 200 elementary school children show up about 9 a.m. at seven school sites: North Ranchito, South Ranchito, Pio Pico, Rio Vista, Birney, North Park, and the combined campus of Rivera Elementary and Rivera Middle School. Any migrant student can attend on any Saturday.

Supervised by 10 teachers and seven instructional aides, students study reading, language and math. The Saturday teachers follow monthly programs set up by regular classroom teachers, and each school site takes turns using computers for about a month at a time.

At North Ranchito last Saturday, about 15 children worked in the computer room, brightly decorated with bilingual charts and posters. Some tapped out spelling words in English and Spanish, while others punctuated sentences and practiced multiplication. And in a corner, one boy enthusiastically racked up points on a video game program.

In another room, about 10 first- and second-graders sat at oblong tables and worked on dittoed math and reading lessons, keeping one eye on the peanut butter and crackers an aide was preparing as a mid-morning snack.

On an outdoor basketball court, another group was learning to play volleyball. This physical education session followed their review of the four food groups during a health and nutrition class.

Records on Computer

Teachers in the Saturday program record the students' academic progress on computerized monthly reports that become part of a nationwide data bank. When a migrant child moves, his records and individualized learning plan go along.

The key to any successful migrant education program, district official say, is the participation of parents. As a requirement for receiving federal migrant education money, the El Rancho district holds monthly meetings with a Parent Advisory Council.

Parents review the $208,000 annual budget and discuss how to improve the district's program. District officials hope the regular contact with parents, about 20% of whom attend the meetings, convinces them to keep their children in school.

"These kids are not free agents. They're subject to mom and dad's needs and whims, whether it's baby-sitting or whatever," Sermeno said. "We try, through these monthly meetings, to instill the value of education in those who don't value it for their kids."

Liaisons Visit Homes

The district also has two community liaisons who regularly visit the homes of migrant families. In the process, the migrant program office has become a place where Spanish-speaking parents know they will find an advocate, said Aurora Teresa Aguilar, chairwoman of the Parent Advisory Council.

"They come to me with everything," she said, from asking for translations of documents to where to buy glasses for a child with a vision problem.

"They want an education for their children, but sometimes they don't understand what that means," Aguilar said. "They don't understand the complexity of what is being asked of their children."

De la Rosa said some parents know their children are having problems in school, "but many times the language barrier makes them feel like they can't make an impact at school. Once they know we're there to help, they know they have a backup in case anything goes wrong."

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