The man who designed Oregon’s first migrant education program
El Hispanic News
Clackamas, OR — In 1955 and 1956 migrant workers began coming to the fertile fields of Oregon to harvest strawberries and green beans and hops, to pick fruit in orchards or care for the decorative plants of the state’s nurseries.
Some of the children of these early migrants worked in the fields alongside their parents during the summer. Toddlers, 2 and 3 years old, too young to work, spent their days crawling around in the fields. At night families gathered in dismal shacks — many lacking such basics as electricity or running water.
In the winter many returned to warmer regions. Consequently, in 1950s few children of seasonal workers went to school in Oregon. Of the few who did, not all learned English.
As a young teacher/principal at St. Paul Elementary School, Ron Petrie realized the seriousness of the problem.
He recalls the practice of some teachers of that period. “When kids came in and couldn’t speak English, they’d put them in the back of the room and give them a coloring book and crayons,” he says. “Then the migrant children would drop out of school.”
In Oregon, in the mid-1950s, Petrie remembers no Hispanic teachers or administrators in the Portland Public School system.
This inspired Petrie to develop a program to help migrant children overcome their problems in school.
Under the trying circumstances, Petrie began developing a program to help migrant children succeed in school. He was the first in Oregon to do so; perhaps even the first in the United States.
All that happened 50 years ago.
Recently, when cleaning out his garage, Petrie found something. “I came across this box. I didn’t know what it was,” he says.
On inspection he found a historical treasure chest — one that he had created decades ago. Inside he found half-century-old news clippings and multicultural material.
“I didn’t know I had all this stuff,” he says, sounding a little surprised.
Miguel A. Salinas, a retired teacher and principal with a penchant for history, says, “There’s no one in the state that knows as much as Ron does [about migrant education history].”
Important? “As far as I’m concerned, [finding this material] is a miracle,” Salinas says.
Salinas, now retired, created a bit of history himself. Among many breakthroughs, Salinas was the first Hispanic — he says, “Mexican” — school principal in the Woodburn School District.
Salinas attributes it all to Petrie. “There was no one there before him.”
The friendship of Petrie and Salinas goes back many decades. When Petrie was principal at St. Paul Elementary School, Salinas was one of his fifth grade students. Little could they have known that they would become an influential team — and remain close friends for more than 50 years.
A plan is born
Petrie’s concept was to create a summer school dedicated to introducing migrant children to English.
The migrants would come to Oregon in May and June. Parents would keep the children at home — or out working to help provide basic needs.
Migrant education, at that time, was basically summer school. A bit later remedial educational programs appeared during the school year.
“This was really a forerunner of the Head Start program,” Petrie says. Indeed, in 1965 Petrie was working with Sargent Shriver in Washington, D.C., when the nationwide Head Start program was launched.
Not proficient in Spanish himself, Petrie hired Helen Richardson to implement his concept. A bilingual speaker, Richardson had recently come to Oregon from New Mexico.
Richardson set up a “transition room” at St. Paul for kids who didn’t speak English. The room resembled a house rather than a schoolroom.
“All day long these kids would be in the room and they would work on language,” Petrie says.
“Every kid has strengths and weaknesses,” he observes. “I paired the best kids with regular kids that were having problems. It brought about good human relationships — they learned from each other.”
Petrie targeted children too young to work. “We had a lot of summer school programs,” he says.
Spreading the program
Petrie recalls that in 1959 a representative from Oregon’s State Department of Education came around. Petrie says, “They found out I was the only one that had a migrant education program.”
“They asked me to come to Salem and duplicate the program at St. Paul.” He says.
Salinas notes that Petrie’s work and research sparked the Oregon legislature to pass Chapter 418 of HB 139 in 1959 — Oregon’s centennial year.
“I went to schools all over the state and set up programs in 80 school districts,” Petrie says.
From this point, 80 migrant programs became operational in Oregon. Although Petrie headed up the program, his goal was to make the program run on its own. As he describes his role, “My job was to see more minorities in education — to put myself out of a job.”
Migrant education goes national
When Petrie created Oregon’s first migrant program in 1959, he knew of no other such programs in the United States.
In 1959 Petrie had a $1,000 surplus in his budget. He decided to document the Migrant Education Program, complete with papers and a 16-millimeter film. He donated a package to the PSU library and stashed one in his garage. The PSU copy, Petrie says, is currently unavailable — and his personal copy was forgotten — until a garage cleaning chore in 2011.
Shortly after Oregon’s breakthrough, the plight of “low income, poverty types of kids” drew national attention. During this period Colorado also started a similar program.
Soon national workshops began addressing the problems of children from poor families and non-English-speaking children.
In 1965 Petrie was in charge of the Teacher Corps in Oregon State University. One of the programs that evolved from this was the Migrant Education Program.
In addition to training kids, it also trained teachers to implement the program. “Teacher Corps was the first attempt to train teachers of color,” Petrie says.
Programs such as Head Start and Upward Bound followed in 1965. In 1969, Petrie hired Salinas for the Teachers Corps.
Petrie’s career blossomed. In addition to being first Oregon’s state director for migrant education he became “the 12th member” of Shriver’s poverty program.
He became the director of Upward Bound and the Teacher Corps. As an academic, he headed Utah State University’s Department of Elementary Education, then the dean of education at California State University at San Bernardino, and dean of the Portland State University School of Education.
In 1971, Petrie spent several months in Germany. There he received an immersion course in German. After three weeks, he says, he was thinking in German.
A few weeks later, he was speaking German with some confidence.
From that experience, Petrie now concludes, “The immersion process is the best way to learn a language.”
“Speaking precedes reading and writing,” Petrie reasons. That applies, he believes, as much to a 9-year-old student as it does to a 2-year-old child.
Salinas notes that the contrast in their backgrounds brought him and Petrie together. And, after 50 years, he says, their roles have not changed. Salinas still sees himself as the migrant student and Petrie as the teacher.
Taking the long view of educational history, Petrie observes that reforms have a way of becoming forgotten. As he puts it, “Every 10 to 15 years, new people come along and suggest the same things. They re-invent the same thing with a different name.”
As another fellow — one named George Santayana — phrased it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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