Life comes piecemeal for migrant children

THESE children giggle and run like children everywhere. But their lives are much different from those of most youngsters in the United States. Their fathers and mothers are among California's thousands of migrant farm workers, which means family life is a perpetual process of settling into temporary housing, then packing up a few months later to move again. And education is, at best, piecemeal.

Right now, however, these bright-eyed youngsters playing on the back patio of a preschool center appear contented enough. The migrant labor camp stretching behind the preschool building is a drab place, certainly, with uniform rows of beige, prefab dwellings, but it's clean and orderly. There's some grass, along with a few small trees that are swallowed up by the vast plowed backdrop of the Sacramento Valley.

The housing is a good deal better than it used to be. ``It didn't start this way,'' says Angela Gonzales, referring to the camp's current neatness. Mrs. Gonzales has run the preschool facility here for 10 years. This camp used to be ``one of the worst'' in the state, she says -- pinched one-room cabins, shared baths, outdoor plumbing. In the last five years, particularly, the county and state have worked on improving the place, from inside plumbing to fresh paint.

Janice Anguay, an assistant manager at the camp, confirms that. Overhaul of the plumbing and wiring actually began in 1977, she notes, as she shows visitors around one of the cabins. Aqua-blue walls, concrete floors, and well-used Army surplus furniture convey that same feeling of drabness -- though, again, things like the relatively new electric stove are an advance over the recent past. When the camp is full, with as many as 500 residents, crowding can still be a problem, with up to seven people in a two-bedroom dwelling. ``That's a lot of people,'' Ms. Anguay comments. At least now there are some four-bedroom units for big families, she adds.

A few miles distant from the camp, inside the mustard-colored stucco buildings of the Esparto elementary and junior high school, a group of seven- and eight-year-olds in Wayne Wagner's classroom huddle around tables as teaching aides help them with math and vocabulary lessons. Mr. Wagner, a wiry, bearded fellow who is clearly excited by his work, explains his plans to develop an ESL (English as a second language) workbook that will follow the experiences of a family through a typical day and thus build

the youngsters' grasp of everyday words and phrases.

Most of the children come from poor, rural regions of northern Mexico, he says. And their language difficulties often go deeper than a lack of English. ``With these youngsters, you find that although Spanish is their home language, their Spanish is not that good,'' Wagner says. Complicating the matter, he adds, some of the children speak a mix of Indian and Spanish. He has had Spanish-speaking aides turn to him in amazement and say, ``I can't understand a word this kid is saying.''

He notes one thing common to nearly all these children. ``Most all of their parents want their kids to get out of the migrant circuit,'' says Wagner, who has visited the camp to talk with his students' mothers and fathers. They have dreams for a better life for their children, he continues, ``but if they're illiterate themselves, it's a vicious circle.'' That's why he thinks an ESL program for the parents is essential, something he hopes to develop.

Such hopes take money, and Esparto is far from a wealthy school district. More bilingual teachers, like Wagner, are clearly needed, but ``they're in great demand,'' notes school principal Sam Totten, and this small town can't bid very high for their services.

To him, the overarching fact is that these children ``are members of our society . . . and they are human beings, with every right to be educated, no matter where they're from or why they're here.''

``It's absolutely crazy what a migrant population does to a school system,'' says Wagner, who only recently came to Esparto to set up a bilingual education program to meet the needs of migrant students. Confronting those needs requires an ``incredible effort,'' according to Mr. Totten. There's no continuity for the children or the school, he observes, and the dropout rate is high.

After some further discussion of the problems involved in providing an education for migrants, and the observation that, since a number of states are involved, federal money would seem to be warranted, Wagner smiles, then adds, simply: ``I don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to do it.''

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