Written by Victoria Cepeda
Imagine life in Oregon back in the mid 1950’s as a migrant worker. Tougher yet imagine yourselves as children of migrant workers when young age did not exempt you from working alongside your parents in the field. Then as you stay with me in this “make believe journey” close your eyes and place yourselves in a classroom as your young mind darts from face to lips of strangers. You are attempting to assimilate a language only heard at intervals of your lives. You see little chances of finding anyone that would show you the way and, thus, resigned to follow your parents from harvest to harvest.
However, into the picture comes Ron Petrie, a then young teacher/principal of a local elementary school in Portland. Mr. Petrie noticed that his fellow teachers, unable to communicate with the young children, would place them at the back of the classroom with color books to entertain them. After all why bother if these kids would be gone in no time? I mean this was Oregon in the 1950s where there were no Hispanic teachers and no one seemed to care. This indifference by his peers motivated Petrie to create a program that would help migrant children learn English and founded what became Oregon’s first Migrant Education Program.
He then hired Helen Richardson who was bilingual. Ms. Richardson introduced an innovative way to teach English to migrant children via a “transition room” that resembled a house instead of a traditional classroom. Kids with stronger English skills would be paired up with regular ones to help strengthen relationships and improve conversation. This is the concept of immersion by which a person learns a language faster by speaking it rather than by reading or by writing it. It was not long before neighboring states learned of Petrie’s program and asked for his help to create similar programs within those states.
Among the many accomplishments we can attribute to Ron Petrie are:
- In 1959 Petrie had a $1,000 surplus in his budget. He decided to document the Migrant Education Program. As a result his films can be seen at PSU as proof of his hard work and the upward battle the children faced.
- 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
- Head Start and Upward Bound followed in 1965
-He became the director of Upward Bound and the Teacher Corps. Teacher Corps was the first attempt to train teachers of color. As an academic, he headed Utah State University’s Department of Elementary Education, the dean of education at California State University at San Bernardino, and dean of the Portland State University School of Education.
Petrie concludes that “reforms have a way of becoming forgotten. Every 10 to 15 years, new people come along and suggest the same things. They re-invent the same thing with a different name.” His legacy can be better described by some of the now grown kids he taught, such as Miguel A. Salinas who became the first Mexican to head a local public school in the Woodburn School District. Salinas says that “There was no one there before Petrie.”
Mr. Petrie pioneered a program that changed the outlook in life of many migrant children. Consequently, for having taken the time to care and for having provided many kids with the right tools to break the cycle, today we showcase Ron Petrie on Pa’lante. A silent warrior who accomplished a lot on behalf of our community and children.
photo from northcountydental.com
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