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Life comes piecemeal for migrant children

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THESE children giggle and run like children everywhere. But their lives are much different from those of most youngsters in the United States. Their fathers and mothers are among California's thousands of migrant farm workers, which means family life is a perpetual process of settling into temporary housing, then packing up a few months later to move again. And education is, at best, piecemeal.

Right now, however, these bright-eyed youngsters playing on the back patio of a preschool center appear contented enough. The migrant labor camp stretching behind the preschool building is a drab place, certainly, with uniform rows of beige, prefab dwellings, but it's clean and orderly. There's some grass, along with a few small trees that are swallowed up by the vast plowed backdrop of the Sacramento Valley.

The housing is a good deal better than it used to be. ``It didn't start this way,'' says Angela Gonzales, referring to the camp's current neatness. Mrs. Gonzales has run the preschool facility here for 10 years. This camp used to be ``one of the worst'' in the state, she says -- pinched one-room cabins, shared baths, outdoor plumbing. In the last five years, particularly, the county and state have worked on improving the place, from inside plumbing to fresh paint.

Janice Anguay, an assistant manager at the camp, confirms that. Overhaul of the plumbing and wiring actually began in 1977, she notes, as she shows visitors around one of the cabins. Aqua-blue walls, concrete floors, and well-used Army surplus furniture convey that same feeling of drabness -- though, again, things like the relatively new electric stove are an advance over the recent past. When the camp is full, with as many as 500 residents, crowding can still be a problem, with up to seven people in a two-bedroom dwelling. ``That's a lot of people,'' Ms. Anguay comments. At least now there are some four-bedroom units for big families, she adds.

A few miles distant from the camp, inside the mustard-colored stucco buildings of the Esparto elementary and junior high school, a group of seven- and eight-year-olds in Wayne Wagner's classroom huddle around tables as teaching aides help them with math and vocabulary lessons. Mr. Wagner, a wiry, bearded fellow who is clearly excited by his work, explains his plans to develop an ESL (English as a second language) workbook that will follow the experiences of a family through a typical day and thus build

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