A SCHOOL OF SURVIVAL : 'It can be very scary being a student in a foreign land' : Field Work for Children of Farm Workers Is 3 R's

It is 1 p.m. on a warm August Wednesday, and Maria Pierce has set up class in a battered storage shed, wedged between two tractors and a tiny home.

Her desk is a rusty card table covered by a plastic tablecloth on a dirt floor, and the lighting is the early afternoon sun. For the next two hours, her 11 pupils will include seven children and four mothers, some cradling sleeping babies in their arms.

A full-time teacher at San Juan Elementary School during the school year, Pierce is one of eight tutors working in South County this summer for the federal Migrant Worker Education program. Their challenge is to reach a transient part of the American population, the children of migrant farm workers. It is an often forgotten group, said Laura Ancheta, program director for the region.

"One of our first jobs is to find these students," Ancheta said. "These are very often the students who will fall through the cracks and drift away from school."

Pierce has brought a chart to class with her this day, "The Magic of Color," which she holds before her pupils.

"What color is this?" she asks in Spanish, pointing to a corner of the chart.

"Rojo," the class answers in unison.

"Ahora in English," Pierce returns, which prompts some apprehension.

"Red," comes the answer from some.

"Las mamas tambien," prods Pierce, urging the mothers to join in.

This is teaching at its most basic: beginning reading, writing and mathematics, done both in English and Spanish. Parents, although not officially students, need the instruction too.

"Much of what I teach is survival techniques," Pierce said. "These are families where often no one knows how to read or write."

Since Congress established the nationwide program in 1986, seven school districts in Orange County have begun to offer it.

To be eligible, a child must have changed school districts within the last 12 months. This usually happens as the parent moves in search of agricultural work. Once the child is identified, his or her name is recorded in the Migrant Worker Education program's computers in Little Rock, Ark. As the children travel with their families, their eligibility for the program follows them.

"We try to keep track of our students, so they won't lose a lot of time already spent on their education," Ancheta said. But sometimes, the tracking system fails.

"I found out this summer we have a very transient migrant population here," she said. "About 75 students have left and we can't find them."

During the normal school year, the program works with pupils for an hour or two after school. It also helps in counseling and guiding the children.

"We'll do what we can in an effort to keep the kids in school; that's why we are funded and that's our federal mandate," said Sonia Duffoo, the director of the program's Southwest region. "Keeping them in school often means everything from guiding them toward health services to finding them something to eat. We're really a multiservice program."

In the summer, the tutors trek to the fields to offer a kind of summer school.

"Summertime is when we are our busiest," Ancheta said. "That is when we go to the homes of the workers, to the ranches or the crowded apartments."

In this, the first year the program has been active in the Capistrano Unified School District, 535 migrant students already have been identified.

"We were actually very surprised that there were so many migrant students in this area," Ancheta said.

Federal funding is based on attendance. This year's $65,000 budget for San Juan Capistrano has been bumped up to $109,000 next year.

The pupils range in age from 3 to 21. On this Wednesday at Rancho Kinoshita, a 40-acre farm in the flat plains of the Capistrano Valley, none of the children is older than 10. The older students attend a more traditional summer school at Capistrano Valley High School.

For the youngsters translating numbers, colors and simple sentences, the demands of a classroom can be puzzling and intimidating, Pierce said.

"Can you imagine trying to learn how to read and write when no one in your family has learned these things, and no one can help you?"

Those dilemmas and the discrepancies of language often push pupils to a more comprehensible subject: mathematics. Pierce's charges generally prefer doing their math homework, she said.

"My students usually don't have problems with math because it's visual," Pierce said. "They excel in this, and that makes them feel good."

After only one year, the migrant program already has nine success stories in San Juan Capistrano. Those nine students graduated from high school and some, including Silvia Duenas, who finished with a 3.4 grade point average, are headed for college.

Duenas' father, a native of Zamora, Michoacan, Mexico, has worked in the fields for 20 years. On Aug. 20, however, she will be the first in her family to enroll in college when she begins classes at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

She speaks English and Spanish fluently, and is studying French. But she remembers wandering into an American classroom with no knowledge of English.

"I felt lost, alone, like there was no one to turn to," she said.

Ancheta said the migrant program offered counseling and pushed her toward her goal of a college degree.

"I think the program helped me with my self-esteem, my courage," she said. "It can be very scary being a student in a foreign land."

Times staff writer Maria Newman contributed to this story.

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