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Each Painting Tells Story for These Children : Education: Migrant youngsters, at risk of dropping out of school, learn about history, math and literature through a special fine arts program.


Joan Miro may have been a great artist, and his "The Red Sun" may be considered a classic example of surrealism, but ask 6-year-old David Velasquez what he thinks of the bold colorful painting and he'll tell you that it reminds him of "when I was little and scribbled."

But David will also tell you that Miro is from Barcelona, that Barcelona is in Spain, and that he can find many circles, triangles and something that looks like a man with a turtle's head in the painting. He also knows that he prefers Van Gogh to Miro.

His new-found knowledge and the eagerness with which he shares his interpretations are a source of immense pride for his teachers.

David, a pupil at a Santa Fe Springs elementary school, is the son of migrant workers. He is a child whose transient family life places him at great risk for dropping out, educators say. Early this year, educators from the Los Angeles County Office of Education placed him in a fledgling program designed to strengthen the academic skills of migrant children through art.

Every week, in schools in eight districts throughout southeast Los Angeles County, about 700 migrant children ages 5 through 14 are introduced to fine arts masterpieces and, through them, taught about geography, mathematics, history and literature.

The other goal of the program, now 6 months old, is to help teachers address the problems peculiar to children whose families follow the crops.

It is a daunting challenge, says Randolph Guerrero, a migrant education specialist who started the arts program for the county education office.

"There has been little attempt to connect art to academics," Guerrero said. The arts seemed a natural way to reach migrant children because much of Mexican culture is based on popular art, dance and music, he said.

"Everyone in some way has had experience with art," he said. "We wanted to focus on an area where youngsters had positive experiences in order to make their education become more meaningful and more relevant. We are seeking not just to enrich a migrant child's life in the arts, but to use that experience to enrich his academic life."

In the Santa Fe Springs classroom of Josefa Wann, David and seven other migrant children were gathered before the Miro print. On the walls around them were the copies of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" that they had made.

"Miro likes bright colors, playful colors," Wann told her rapt pupils. "He likes primary colors. Do you know what primary colors are?"

"White?" asked one child.

Wann reviewed the primary colors, then moved on to shapes, asking the children to identify and count the circles and triangles in the piece. They quickly found triangles and circles and several "tadpoles," which they eagerly pointed out to Wann.

She then asked them how the paintings of Miro differ from those of Van Gogh. Later, she asked them to draw something that looks like Miro's painting.

"I don't want you to make trees or people," she told them. "I want you to make shapes, triangles and circles and . . . ."

"Teacher, can we make frogs?" one child interjected.

"Make squiggles just like you did when you were little. Make your own painting," Wann told her.

Wann, a native of Spain who taught migrant children for five years in the Little Lake School District, said she believes that although the arts program has only been in place a few months, the children have benefited.

"If this had been a really structured first-grade class, it would have been hard for them," she said. "Many of them are shy and are afraid of being wrong. But in art there is no right and wrong. It is all interpretation, so there is no failure."

She said that because of all the disruption in their lives, many of these children lag academically behind their peers and lack confidence in themselves. The arts program quickly builds their self-confidence because "it is a way of expressing themselves that is immediately accepted by everybody. Through art they can feel right away a sense of belonging."

It is estimated that California, with an estimated 170,000, has the nation's largest population of migrant students, said John Masla, a consultant with the state Department of Education's Office of Migrant Education. He said that in Los Angeles County, about 20,000 children have been identified as migrants and that the dropout rate for this group is about 50%.

Educators also say migrant children often begin school late in the year, leave early and miss many days in between.

"Transiency has an incredible impact on children," said Guerrero, himself a child of migrant workers. "They move to a new town, a new school, sometimes once, twice a year. It is a double, triple whammy. Their whole world is up and down. It's like being in a washing machine. It's spin, spin, spin."

David's family moved to the San Joaquin Valley from Santa Fe Springs to pick peaches when he was 4 years old. They returned to the Santa Fe Springs area two years later in hope of finding work.

One of the problems that so much moving around can bring such children is being thrust into a classroom whose teacher does not know how to reach them.

Masla said that teachers sometimes see migrant children as outsiders because many programs for them are funded directly by the county and not the individual district. In some districts, he said, there can be a perception that "migrant children are not our children, they are the county's children."

Providing supplementary education for these children is vital, Guerrero said. Besides the art program, the Los Angeles County Office of Education offers after-school classes, special Saturday summer classes and, in some districts, special counseling services.

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