CALDWELL, Idaho (AP) — From year to year, students at any school must adjust to an unfamiliar classroom and a new teacher. But for children of migrant families who move where there's agricultural work, each school year could mean not only a new classroom, but a new school in a different state.
In schools across Idaho, teachers and staff — many former migrant students themselves — are trying to help the state's 4,600 migrant students overcome those obstacles.
"We train across the state to make sure folks have what they need so that they can thrive, and possibly see an opportunity for education in a different light," said Christina Nava, director of Idaho's English Learner and Migrant Education program.
Canyon County has the highest number of identified migrant students in the state. Idaho students whose families work in agriculture and have moved within the last three years can qualify for the Migrant Education Program, a federally funded program to keep students who move frequently on track for graduation.
Vallivue School District and Caldwell School District, the two Canyon County districts with the most students enrolled in the program, have 500 students and 367 students, respectively. Many of those students qualify for the school district's English Language Development program, formerly called ESL or English as a Second Language.
"It starts with the parents and their support for their children," said Sara San Juan, director of Vallivue School District's Migrant Education Program. "If they are coming from Mexico and they migrate back and forth, a lot of times they leave for four to six weeks, in what we consider the holiday time. But really there's just no work, and so they go back home."
Missing credits at the secondary level is an issue for migrant high school kids, San Juan said. Missing six weeks of school at any grade level is guaranteed to put kids behind their classmates.
Migrant Education Program staff usually connect with families through home visits, where they can assess the needs of the family and connect them to health or other social services. School district staff said seeing the poor living conditions of some migrant families during these home visits can be difficult.
"I just want to pick them up and take them to my house," said Elia Ramirez, a migrant family liaison at Vallivue School District. "Sometimes, when you see the living conditions, that's a real big one for me. To see what these kids have to go home to. We expect them to function, we expect them to be clean, and then ... you go to the home visit and see what they really come home to."
Both districts have seen that finding more ways to involve parents in their children's education is usually key to their success. Meeting bilingual staff — who are careful to arrange meetings around families' schedules in the fields — often relieves parents of worries their limited English or employment is an obstacle to participation in their child's education.
Lianne Yamamoto, the federal programs director at Parma School District, said it was fulfilling to work with migrant families. Parma's small program staff works with a total of 37 migrant students, including seven children who are not yet enrolled.
"They are typically hard to reach in early fall and late spring, but they will come through with active involvement when they can and appreciate all efforts to work with them in supporting their kids' education," Yamamoto told the Idaho Press-Tribune in an email. "They give back, too. I wish everyone had a chance to know these families the way we do."
Sometimes, simply identifying students and recruiting families for the program is a success — as those students are more likely to slip through the cracks and drop out of school. The U.S. Department of Education estimates the graduation rate for migrant students nationwide is roughly 40 to 50 percent — although that data has not been updated for 20 years.
Dalila Martinez-Roberts, director of Caldwell School District's migrant program, runs a parent advisory council composed of a few migrant parents. The council helps staff identify key needs and interests of migrant families. During a meeting in March, a few mothers completed a survey in Spanish with Martinez-Roberts at the school district office. Many said they and other families would like more tips on how to help their children with homework, as well as clearer explanations of attendance and graduation requirements.
"They are very caring, hardworking people that contribute to the community, and they have kids in our school system." Martinez-Roberts said. "I would really like to see more of the community come together to see them support their families and their culture."
Part of supporting their culture is offering opportunities for students — especially those in Caldwell's migrant day care — to learn in both English and Spanish through dual-immersion programs at some of the district schools.
"I know what it feels like to speak in English at school and speak in Spanish at home," Martinez-Roberts said. "You're losing your culture and caught between two worlds and dealing with bullying that comes from that."
This year, Martinez-Roberts and other program staff are continuing a summer day care program for the younger siblings of students in summer school. Many students in the migrant program need to take summer school classes to catch up on credits they missed from moving schools or language difficulties. Caldwell's Migrant Education Program previously had a difficult time convincing parents to send their older children to summer school because they needed them to watch their siblings while the parents worked in the fields.
Staff at both Caldwell and Vallivue school districts said they can find it difficult to motivate students who have fallen too far behind in credits to graduate on time.
Griselda Garcia, a migrant family liaison with the Vallivue School District, was recently struggling to help 17-year-old Fernando Mejia, a junior who was facing an extra year of school. His family's moves through Mexico, California and around Idaho meant he was 11 credits behind in graduation requirements. Staff said although his parents were involved in getting him the help he needed, the extra hours of school required to graduate were too daunting.
But Garcia didn't give up on Mejia or the family. She helped him apply for the Idaho Youth ChalleNGe Academy in Pierce, Idaho — a volunteer program for 16- to 18-year-old students who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out. Mejia started the six-month program in January and will be able to return to class in the fall and graduate with his peers.
"We are always trying to find avenues to help our kids succeed," Garcia said.
Garcia keeps in touch with the Mejia family regularly, who say their son is excited and enjoying the program, she said. Without the challenge academy, Mejia would have had to spend a few extra hours at school every day to make up his missing credits.
"It was kind of tough at the very beginning, but it has gotten a lot easier for him," Garcia said. "He's really grateful for the program, because he's learned a lot, they've taught him how to be responsible."
Ezri Palacios, a senior at Ridgevue High School in the Vallivue district, said he was grateful for migrant program's support and resources.
"I think without it, I would have been stuck," Palacios said. "They just give you (help with) basic needs that your family probably can't give you."
Palacios has worked in the fields with his family since he was 14, picking corn, carrots, mint and other crops across southwestern Idaho and parts of Oregon. Now, because of his hard work, the support of the migrant program staff and some soccer skills, he'll be attending Walla Walla Community College in Washington after graduation. He's committed to play for the soccer team and plans to study civil engineering.
"I'm very grateful to everyone in the migrant program," Palacios said. "They're very kind and they care for you. You can see all the time and effort they put into everything they do. It's a great support system to get through high school."
Nava, Martinez-Roberts, Garcia and Ramirez all have a personal connection to their work with migrant families and students. Their families picked crops across Texas and California, worked at the onion sheds in Ontario, harvested hops in Wilder and picked fruit in Marsing. Some were migrant, some weren't, but all four view their jobs as way to honor the work their grandparents and parents did and the work others in their communities still do to give their children better lives.
"I'm trying to make a difference and help out the kids that really need it — and let them know that you can succeed in this world," Garcia said.
Ramirez, who has worked as a migrant family liaison at Vallivue School District for more than two decades, said she took each of her own children to work with her at one point in the fields.
"It wasn't to punish them — because I went with them — but it was more like, I need you at this point to really value your school," Ramirez said. "I needed them to be in the fields like I was — like their dad and myself — and go back and really appreciate school. Let me tell you, they did."
Migrant program staff said they are always trying to walk this fine line between encouraging students to imagine a future beyond the fields, while honoring the essential role their parents and families fill in Idaho's agriculture industry.
"You hear parents say, 'Oh, you don't want to work in the fields like I do,'" San Juan said. "But what they do is an honorable job. I think that's always important, that we honor where the parents are coming from and their integrity. They are working hard for their kids."
Information from: Idaho Press-Tribune, http://www.idahopress.com