MARTINEZ -- Lately, Jesirra and Jaevani Persaud have been spontaneously singing the songs and dancing the native dances of their Cherokee roots with great delight each day.

And, they now have a frequent hankering to drum.

The Martinez girls had already experienced such traditions, attending pow wows and other such festivities through the local American Indian Culture and Education Program, and they have made fry bread and dream catchers with their mom.

But, it was not until they took part in a three-week unit at their preschool that the desire to express themselves in this way became so second nature.

"(My daughters) soaked in so much. The teachers went all-out," says Rachel Persaud, noting the extensive research, the use of original artifacts and the dispelling of cultural stereotypes.

Persaud is a para-educator for the Martinez-based American Indian Culture and Education Program, tutoring a dozen students each week who have some degree of Native American ancestry. The program serves approximately 800 students from kindergarten through high school in central and east Contra Costa County.

On a recent morning, Jessira, 3, and Jaevani, 5, joined their peers with painted faces in the Eagle Dance at the Martinez Early Childhood Center, a 35-year-old nonprofit educational facility that historically has had a multilingual staff and served a low-income, multicultural demographic.

For their performance, the children had written stories using Native American symbols on their fans of seven feathers -- a sacred number for the Cherokee.

"Spread your wings and follow your leader," one teacher instructs, as bells ring out with every stomp of their feet.

Paper towel holders filled with dried beans were their rain sticks, and decorated decaf coffee canisters were their drums.

Each learning center in Patricia Hamilton's classroom reflected the central theme of her instruction. The word board listed "teepee," "dream catcher" and "mask." A U.S. map shows the Trail of Tears. Titles in the library area included "The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush" and "The Cherokee." Photos of Cherokee children appoint the music center. And a CD recording filled the space with such songs as "Circle of Light," "Wash Your Spirit Clean" and "Harmony."

The choice to go beyond the initial idea for a culture day was predicated on the school's curricular philosophy based on following the students' particular interests.

"Because the children are encouraged to be active learners, the curriculum emerges from that interest," says Executive Director Cassandra Campbell. "Here we use a project-based approach. The interest in Native Americans emerged from an interest they took in their fellow students and their family."

While Hamilton heralds from South America, her mother-in-law is Cherokee.

"That was part of my motivation, to honor her," she says, "and the children responded with open hearts ... We got to recognize our melting pot. This was an opportunity to instill in them this new culture."