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A place where learning flows.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

SPRINGFIELD - Eight-year-old Jorge Sanchez has attended three different elementary schools in four years, most recently Riverbend in Springfield.

He's not sure where he'll go in the fall because his family may be moving. Again.

He says he doesn't mind. "It's fun making new friends," said Jorge, a cherubic Mexican-born boy with short-cropped hair and large eyes.

That may be, but the fact is that his parents' mobility, economic status and limited English put Jorge at high risk of faring poorly in school, or eventually dropping out.

Jorge's circumstances ring true for many of the children attending the Lane County Migrant Education Summer School, which just finished its third of four weeks at Guy Lee Elementary School in Springfield.

The students, in kindergarten through eighth grade, all have parents or guardians who have recently worked or still work as seasonal laborers - in berry fields, orchards, nurseries or forests, or on dairy farms, chicken-processing plants or fishing boats. While Jorge's mother stays home with him and his little sister, his father is in Washington state for a few weeks, he says, "killing plants with chemicals."

Most of the kids come from Mexico, many by way of California, and all have moved across school district lines at least once in the past three years. They are recruited to attend, and their numbers are rising fast.

When the summer program began in 1998, 40 children came; this summer, 204 are enrolled. Eighty of those are from Springfield, which has the fastest-growing Latino population in the county.

"More families are moving here, but also we are doing a much better job of identifying which students qualify for the program," said Nancy Bray, an English Language Learner specialist for Springfield schools who also works for the Lane Education Service District as its part-time migrant education coordinator.

Paid for primarily through federal funds, the three-hour, four-days-a-week program aims to give migrant students an academic boost before the school year starts. The primary focus is language skills - mostly English, but also Spanish. While they speak Spanish with ease, many of the children have little or no ability to read or write it.

"That's the biggest, most important factor we've found with the students who make the most progress, is whether they are literate in their native language," Bray said.

Parent Salvador Vargas, who recently brought his family to Eugene from Mexico, said his two children - who spoke no English two months ago - have shown progress after just a few weeks of schooling.

"They're doing very well," said Vargas, who worked as a hospital nursing assistant in Palo Alto, Calif., before moving here for a fresh start. "My little daughter is 10 years old and she doesn't want to go back to Mexico."

Neither Vargas nor his wife has yet found regular work. Meanwhile, Vargas is working two hours a day as the summer school custodian.

The students travel to Guy Lee on six school buses, which stop at or near their homes in Eugene, Springfield, Cottage Grove, Creswell and Junction City. FOOD for Lane County serves breakfast when they arrive at 8:30 a.m. and lunch just before they leave at 12:30 p.m.

In between the reading, writing, math and computer lessons, there's also time for fun. The kids went on a field trip to Lively Swim Park, for example, and this week practiced performances and presentations for Parent Night next Tuesday.

The Lane County program is one of 20 serving about 7,000 students in Oregon. The estimated migrant student population is about 30,000.

The numbers are climbing throughout Oregon, said Ernestina Garcia, director of the Oregon Migrant Education Service Center in Salem. "The challenge that we have is, our allocation from the federal government will pretty much stay the same" for the next several years, she said.

The program budget is $36,000, most of which is for transportation and staff - eight teachers, eight educational assistants, a coordinator, a principal and an assistant. There are about two-dozen volunteers, some of them graduates of the program.

One of those is Jose Garcia, a tall, gentle-looking boy who will be a junior at Springfield High School this fall. He attended the summer program as a middle-schooler fresh from Tecate, Mexico, and went on to do well in school. Now he's volunteering in a boisterous blended class of sixth- , seventh- and eighth-graders.

Educational assistant Beatriz Martinez, who moved to California from Mexico at age 6, still remembers what it was like to walk into school the first day.

"I knew no English, and I felt completely lost because all the instruction was in English," said Martinez, who runs a welcome center for Latino families in the Springfield district and hopes to get a teaching license.

Luciano Valle-Torres, an Argentina native who has worked for the summer program as a recruiter and educational assistant for the past four years, said he has mixed feelings about the program.

Clearly, he said, it gives kids with enormous obstacles a leg up on the academic year, and helps give them a sense of belonging. It also provides children with temporary accident insurance - a benefit for families with no medical coverage.

But he wonders about the impact of the "migrant" label, and further separating out children from their peers. "I just wish these kids would have the same opportunities as anyone else," he said.

CAPTION(S):

Children pull colorful cloth streamers behind them during an activity at the Lane County Migrant Education Summer School at Guy Lee Elementary. Magali Martinez listens to teacher Joy Hatch read from a book. The summer program focuses on boosting students' language skills.
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Title Annotation:Minorities; A four-week program puts first the educational needs of seasonal workers' children
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 16, 2004
Words:943
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