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Deep's Secrets : Special Class Unlock's Sea's Mysteries for Landlocked Children

August 02, 1987|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Rogelio Juarez was taking his turn at the touch tank when the sea hare inked him.

The 12-year-old saw the purplish stains spread on his hands--a vivid lesson in how the shell-less mollusk defends itself. "It's inking!" Rogelio warned, passing the three inches of squirting sea creature off to pals Adolfo Sanchez and Ernesto Villarreal.

The El Monte boys had pulled the sea hare out of the ocean only an hour earlier. It was one of dozens of sea animals captured in a huge net dragged behind the Cee Ray, a 65-foot sport fishing boat out of San Pedro. On a recent cloudless morning the Cee Ray was a floating classroom for Rogelio and 30 other youngsters.

The trip was paid for by a federally funded program that provides supplemental educational and health services to the children of migrant workers.

8,000 Children Involved

According to the county education office, 22 school districts in Los Angeles County share about $5 million annually for migrant education. About 8,000 children participate in the program countywide.

Youngsters are eligible for the federal program if their parents or guardians have recently worked in such occupations as canning, farming, forestry or fishing (the offspring of people who catch or process whales, seals, beavers or certain other mammals are specifically excluded).

Whenever children are registered in the El Monte City School District for the first time, they are queried about their parents' occupations. Those who qualify are contacted by Lisa Dunbar, the district's administrator for migrant education, or her staff. About 300 elementary school children are currently enrolled, Dunbar said.

As Dunbar explained, the program is completely voluntary. During the school year the children attend special classes on Saturdays. During the summer they meet each weekday morning to improve their reading, writing, spoken English and mathematics. Dental clinics, health screenings and instruction in nutrition are also provided through the program.

Reading Sea Stories

This summer marine biology is the special theme of the migrant education program in El Monte. The 140 summer participants, ages 5 to 14, have been studying ocean life and reading and writing about the sea. They earn a paper starfish or kelp leaf on the bulletin board for each book they read. In the weekly nutrition segment of their program they have learned how to prepare shark and ceviche.

The sea has proved riveting for children whose lives are sometimes circumscribed by the fields and canneries where many of their parents work.

"A lot of the children have never been to the ocean or been on a boat before," Dunbar said.

The migrant program is not remedial, she said. Many of the students are average or better. Its primary aim is enrichment. Besides addressing any academic needs, the program's staff try to give the children new experiences.

Bagels, Cream Cheese

Dunbar cited a non-maritime example. The students, most of them from Mexican immigrant families, have had bagels and cream cheese as part of their daily snack.

"Our kids now love bagels and cream cheese," she said. "The parents come up to us at parents' meetings and ask, 'What are these bagels?' "

Both students and teachers praise the choice of marine biology as their summer subject matter. ("It's very educational," several students said.)

"The material is a natural turn-on," said Richard Wicz, a language teacher. An enthusiastic surfer and fisherman, Wicz has helped the children dissect grunion and make model tide pools, complete with shells and dried starfish, out of brown butcher paper. He has taught even the youngest children about the food chain. And he has helped the older ones get their tongues around terms like echinoderm, the scientific name for sea urchins and related marine animals.

'Teachable Moments'

Wicz said that the students' fascination with sharks and shipwrecks has led to many "teachable moments" in his classroom.

"They have something to say, in print and orally," Wicz said of the summer students. "They have something they really want to share, to communicate, and so they make the effort. And then you've got them."

Wicz, who is "always bringing in buckets of slimy things," said he is struck by the sophistication of the students' questions. When he tells the class a provocative fact--say, that oceans create most of the air we breathe--they're apt to ask how he knows.

"It's almost as if they are asking, 'How can I find that out?' " Wicz said. "They want to go beyond what they are told in the classroom. And this is from the little guys who are not considered typical good students."

$16,000 Budget

Although the El Monte summer program budget is $16,000, down from $29,000 last year, all the children--and their six teachers and six aides--have been able to spend a day on the floating lab.

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