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Pasco's Ellen Ochoa Middle School embraces 'Esperanza Rising'
Tri-City Herald

By Kristina Lord Herald staff writer

Brian Leanos grew up with the stories his parents told of harvesting fruits and vegetables in the fields. Their everyday work stories didn't mean much to him, however, until recently when he read a book describing the brutal hardships farm workers faced.

"Now I know how hard my parents worked to get here," said the 14-year-old.

All 600 students at Ellen Ochoa Middle School in Pasco have received a copy of Esperanza Rising by Pam Muoz Ryan. Many of the staff members, including teachers, principals, teachers' aides and secretaries also received copies, as well as a handful of parents.

Using Title 1 money, which is federal aid provided to schools with high poverty levels, the school ordered 800 copies -- 600 in English and 200 in Spanish -- of the award-winning 250-page book published in 2000.

Almost 80 percent of the school's students qualify for subsidized free or reduced lunches.

The novel is about a rich Mexican girl who is forced to flee from Mexico to California, where she lives in a farm worker camp and helps process and pick fruits and vegetables during the Great Depression. The book is divided into chapters based on the season's harvest -- Las Uvas for grapes, Las Ciruelas for plums, Las Papas for potatoes, Los Duraznos for peaches.

"The book shows the problems immigrants have in real life and what they have to go through to get more money. It's real. It's not made up," said 13-year-old Silvia Figueroa.

She asked Ochoa's staff if they wanted to launch a "One Book, One School" version to give their school community something in common to talk about and to get kids excited about reading.

"It's fun to all talk about it at the same time," Jabara said. "It's a pretty engaging book for these kids."

And getting kids excited about reading might be one way to boost low reading scores at the school. The school's test scores on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning showed about 12 percent of seventh-graders met state reading standards last spring.

Ochoa students say they love the book because they can relate to Esperanza, the girl whose name means "hope." They can relate to her because she is their own age, they share a similar heritage and culture, and they either know what it's like to work in the fields or know family members who do. About 88 percent of the students at the school are Hispanic.

Eighth-grader Gabe Alvarez, 13, said he identified with the book because he worked picking cherries in Wenatchee. "It was hard work. Other books I've read, I just usually fall asleep," he said.

Thirteen-year-old Gloria De La Cruz visited Aguascalientes and Zacatecas, Mexican cities mentioned in the book, when she spent a year in Mexico with her grandparents. She's also seen the poverty in some areas of the country.

"I saw all the poor people and knew a poor little girl named Margarita. I would see her on the streets. I've been there," she said.

Maria Velasco, 13, gave a succinct reason for why she enjoyed the book: "They're Mexican and I'm Mexican."

"It's made the whole school come together. It gives us all something to talk about. Everyone is involved in different ways," said English teacher Kim Holway.

In Esther Chavez's art class, students are learning about Mexican artists like Diego Rivera and how their work depicts some of the same scenes described in the book, such as families and farm lands.

Students have tried to design their own artwork based on the book. Johan Rivera, 11, a sixth-grader, used oil pastels to draw three red roses, an important symbol in the novel. Others drew Mexican homes and vineyards.

Students in Kathy Stordahl's computer class researched the Great Depression and what life was like for migrants. They're producing a 10-slide PowerPoint presentation with their findings, including maps of Mexico and California and summaries of the book.

"We're incorporating literature, writing, technology and history. It's going to be a huge project for them," Stordahl said.

Quinceaera dresses and dolls, which are used for Mexican celebrations when girls turn 15, are displayed in the school's lobby. They generate discussion about whether Esperanza will get to celebrate the event when she gets older, Jabara said.

"We want them to think beyond the book," she said.

Artwork showing Esperanza with her ear pressed to the ground listening to the heartbeat of the fertile earth adds color to the hallways in the school.

All students are reading the book, even struggling readers who feel good that they are reading the same books as their peers, said English teacher Becky Thomas.

"We're all on the same playing field and sharing the same story," Thomas said.

Most of Holway's advanced reading students finished the book in a week. The students had to pretend they were Esperanza and write a letter to a friend back in Mexico about life in the United States, including details about how their life had changed.

Holway's students also are working on skits based on scenes in the novel. They're using paper, tape and staples to fashion props for presentations.

Nathan Passanante, 14, fitted a brown paper utility belt around his waist to hold a billy club made of rolled paper. The crooked paper hat on his head read La Migra, or immigration official.

Students will vote on who performs the best skit. The top two picks will perform it during family reading night from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 24. Ochoa students also will share projects and artwork related to the book with their parents and relatives.

The skits depict Esperanza's struggles to find her place in America. Fourteen-year-old Areli Guevara said she knows what it's like not to fit in. The eighth-grader said she changed elementary schools twice.

"I felt embarrassed because I didn't know anyone and I didn't have friends," Guevara said. "I really liked the book because it was interesting the way she came from Mexico and she was having a hard time with people there. Her dad died and a lot of people could relate to that, too."

Ochoa office staff have copies of the books on their desk.

Sandra Kerr, a clerk/registrar in the office, read the book because everyone has been talking about it. "Everyone is commenting on how good and how realistic the book is. You just hear about so many people reading it."

Home visitor Maria Montez reread the book a second time when the reading program began. She read it the first time in Spanish.

"How they describe the way they lived was just like my grandmother used to tell me," Montez said.

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