At Westside Elementary School, Glenda Vasquez is helping fit oversized graduation gowns and caps on children as young as 3 and posing them for photos along a construction-papered wall. It’s 106 degrees outside, and the school is one of a few buildings on a stretch of dusty farmland in this small town south of Fresno.
The outfits are meant to help parents envision their children’s future graduation from high school, and hopefully college. The parents attending the new Valley PBS program also are encouraged to wear graduation gowns of their own for the photo opp – an image meant to make them consider pursuing degrees themselves.
Vasquez, 33, sees herself in the children who attend the Ready to Learn program, which, with the help of a grant from the Independent Television Service, is focusing this summer on teaching rural communities the importance of early learning. But when Vasquez was her students’ age, this is not what summers looked like.
“We didn’t know there was such a thing as a vacation or summer. Summer for us was working with our parents. I remember the last job that I worked, I was probably 14 and I just started crying. I was like, ‘I want to go to school, I don’t want to do this anymore,’ ” Vasquez said. “I just felt bad for all of the people working there. It was the raspberries – their thorns. The gloves don’t work; they just get in the way and slow you down.”
When she was 6 years old, Vasquez and her family migrated to Fresno from El Salvador. Her mother couldn’t afford quality child care, so in between school hours, Vasquez and her siblings tagged along to the fields.
They would find shade under a tree and stay in their mother’s sight as she finished another 14-hour day picking raisins and stone fruits.
Vasquez joined in at age 10, helping expand her mother’s paycheck.
Vasquez knows her students across the Valley, many of whom are English learners and children of farmworkers like herself, come from families where preschool and extracurriculars are considered a luxury – not a necessity. But she is trying to change that.
No other option
Oscar Delgado, 30, is at Westside Elementary after a long day working at a milk facility watching his three children zip up graduation robes. The Valley PBS staff is persuading him to try on a gown himself.
Delgado attended high school in Mexico but wants more than that for his children. He says he is in the program to learn how to be a better parent and to allow his children to learn as much as they can, whenever they can.
“When I worked in the fields, people would bring their kids and leave them in the car because there was no other option,” he said in Spanish. “Just like my kids are learning new things, I’m learning new things – how to be a better parent. I’m learning how to be involved in their school.”
The Ready to Learn program focuses on parents as much as it does children. The primary theme of last week’s workshop in Five Points is that parents are their child’s first teacher.
The Valley PBS team is encouraging parents to read to their children, even when they’re exhausted after work – and to enroll them in pre-kindergarten programs that will ensure they’re on track by kindergarten.
But for some migrant families, that seems out of reach – whether it’s cost or a need for reliable transportation. Sometimes it’s fear of federally funded programs because of an undocumented residency status. Sometimes, it’s simply a fear of putting a child in the hands of strangers.
“My mom taught us that you can never leave your kids alone,” Laboria Zaragoza said in Spanish. “I don’t trust just anyone to take care of them.”
Zaragoza was born in Mexico and enrolled her child and three stepchildren in the Valley PBS program in Five Points. “It teaches you a lot of things,” she said. “I saw things that, as parents, we are sometimes lacking and we don’t notice. I want to start giving my daughter my time and helping her with school.”
Sandra Morin of Riverdale is helping teach 3- and 4-year-olds their colors and numbers using finger puppets. She understands these parents because they remind her of her own.
“I remember my mom bringing my brother when he was really little in the stroller and just having him with her in the fields. Imagine in this heat,” she said. “You either don’t go to work or you bring them with you to the field. Or leave them with the neighbor or in the car. Those are your options.”
‘Class of ’27’
“Class of ’27” is a documentary to be released in September by the Independent Television Service that shows the country’s neediest children are missing out on preschool programs despite research that those classes can boost a student’s education for years to come.
Studies show that quality early child development can curb generational poverty and high school dropout rates among low-income children.
The film follows a Fresno family whose young children travel to Oregon every summer while their parents pick strawberries. The children would typically stay in migrant camps all day. But their daughter, Mireya, is enrolled in a Head Start program, where she learns and socializes with other children.
When Vasquez saw a clip of “Class of ’27,” she was stunned. “This story is being told? This is still happening?” she said. “I was shocked. I couldn’t finish the video. It was just like, that’s my story.”
Valley PBS program trainer Vanessa Casteneda is working to change that story, though. Part of her job is to teach parents how to make learning opportunities a family event, how to turn their home into a classroom and how to trust educators with their youngest children.
“There’s a new generation of parents that want to be better but just don’t know how,” she said. “It gives them the push that they need, and it teaches them how to support and keep supporting them.”
No one knows the families of Westside Elementary better than Dolores Ramirez. She is the school’s community liaison and also works as a tutor and secretary there. Her 3-year-old granddaughter, Miley, is the most inquisitive student in the Ready to Learn program, demanding to know why her finger-puppet monkey is purple.
“We read, we take nature walks, we find a ladybug and talk about it. But how many parents can actually do that with their kids?” said Ramirez, who also has a background in migrant education. “Education starts in the home, but for a lot of these parents to actually find the time to be a part of their kid’s school system, is not easy.”
It’s not easy, but it can be done, Vasquez says. At a recent workshop in Madera, nearly all of the parents involved were farmworkers. One mother thanked Vasquez through tears, telling her the program had inspired her family to sit down and read a book together for the first time.
Vasquez, who has her associate’s degree and hopes to continue her education, is a mother of four who is determined to give her children – and the children she meets through the program – a better start at an education than she had.
“I don’t remember my mother reading a book to me or going to any field trips or meeting my teachers. I really don’t have a memory of her being involved in my education at all,” she said.
“She tells me she never took us to the fields to punish us. She loved us too much. She says, ‘I had no one to take care of you. I couldn’t afford child care and I didn’t trust anyone. I did not know no one in this country.’
“I want to show my mother that it was not in vain,” Vasquez said. “If we’re in this country and went through what we went though, I have to make something out of it. I cannot just throw it away and do nothing with myself.”
“Class of ’27”
“Class of ’27” premieres as part of America ReFramed on Sept. 13 at 8 p.m. on the WORLD channel.