For children of migrant farmworkers, high school graduation takes a village

When your parents follow the harvest, getting an uninterrupted education isn't easy

Published July 14, 2019 1:30PM (EDT)

A study group as part of ASU’s CAMP program. () (Photo courtesy of Seline Szkupinski Quiroga)
A study group as part of ASU’s CAMP program. () (Photo courtesy of Seline Szkupinski Quiroga)

This story first appeared on Civil Eats.

When José Alvarado heads off to Arizona State University (ASU) next month, it will mark a huge milestone for his family: He will the first person in his family to attend college, and as the son of a migrant farmworker, he had to overcome even longer odds to get there. The children of such farmworkers, who travel seasonally for work, have the nation’s highest dropout rate, with 45 to 60 percent quitting high school.

But the 17-year-old from Yuma, Arizona is a testament to the fact that, when given support and resources, migrant students can excel. The more than 3,400 migrant youth in the Yuma Union High School District (YUHSD) make up roughly a third of the student body, but the school system has a dropout rate of just 1.53 percent. That’s less than one-third of the statewide dropout rate of 4.97 percent, and less than a quarter of the national high school dropout rate of 6.1 percent.

By giving migrant students academic and financial help, the tools to complete schoolwork at their own pace, and preparation for college, YUHSD is fostering a more equitable learning environment for the children of the local farmworkers who grow 90 percent of the country’s leafy greens — including iceberg, romaine, and baby leaf lettuce. Yuma’s migrant students aren’t just urged to excel in school — they are given the support to do so.

José Alvarado
José Alvarado.

A combination of factors—poverty, language barriers, and low expectations from teachers — contribute to the academic obstacles the children of seasonal farmworkers face, but moving frequently tops the list of concerns. These youth might miss part of the school year as they travel with their families from one region to the next. That’s why Seline Szkupinski Quiroga calls them the “most educationally disadvantaged in the country.”

“Migrant students, because of the migratory lifestyle, they have greater school disruptions,” said Szkupinski Quiroga, director of ASU’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) Scholars Project, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Education to provide academic, financial, and socio-emotional support to college students from migrant farmworker families. “They’re less likely to form relationships with other students, and they may end up being behind in their schoolwork, taking a test in one school district and another in a different school district.”

In Yuma, families typically stay local from October to March during the leafy green vegetable harvest. Then, in April, they travel to Salinas, California, when the leafy green vegetable harvest begins there. This pattern means that some of Yuma’s migrant students miss a few months of each academic year, spending the early fall and late spring in other school districts or studying independently. Increasingly, however, couples split up to allow their children to complete the academic year in a single location. One parent might head to California — or to Oregon, Washington, Mexico, or elsewhere during harvest season — while the other remains in Yuma with the rest of the family.

“Since my dad is the one that works, who moves up and down, he would go to Salinas, and we would move at another time,” Alvarado said. “We’re a family of five, so there’s four of us when he leaves, and there’s more work to do [in the household] that’s shared between everyone. Because I’m the eldest, I have to be a bit more of a role model for my brother and sister, who look up to me.”

During the summer, Alvarado, his mother, and siblings move to Salinas to be with his farmworker father, who spends the harvest season picking lettuce and other leafy greens. Some children of migrant farmworkers relocate during spring and winter breaks as well. But summer moves make these children vulnerable to the “summer slide,” a term describing how children from low-income households do not have the same level of exposure to academic enrichment during school breaks as their privileged counterparts do.

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Research from education advocacy groups such as the National Summer Learning Association indicate that the reading comprehension scores of youth who experience summer slides fall by the time the school year resumes, requiring them to review previously covered content while their peers are ready to tackle new material.

“I would say school is more difficult for migrant students than it is for the average student that’s not a migrant,” Alvarado said.

Relying on cooperation, vigilance, and academic intervention, YUHSD’s Migrant Education Program staff is changing outcomes for migrant youth. Juan Castillo, the district’s migrant coordinator, said that his team strive to inspire these students to set goals for their lives and achieve them.

“At the end of the day, our vision for migrant students is to empower and motivate them to graduate from high school and to be college, career, and community ready,” Castillo said. “We have migrant advisors on every campus who monitor the academic progress and homework habits of students—and their behavior. We make recommendations so they’re on track to graduate. It’s really a collaborative effort.”

Connecting with parents and students to build success

The U.S. Department of Education established the Migrant Education Programthrough the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to give migrant students equal access to a high-quality high school education. But the funds allocated to school districts are only as effective as how they’re put to use, and not all districts receive enough aid to meet their migrant population’s needs. Money alone is also unlikely to close the achievement gaps between migrant students and their peers who don’t travel during certain seasons or school breaks.

A dedication to migrant youth can make a difference, though, and Mayra Ramirez, the migrant recruiter at Gila Ridge High School in Yuma, said that she takes pains to pinpoint the students who should be enrolled in the Migrant Education Program and to keep them on track after they join. School officials identify migrant students during the school registration process by asking families if they’ve moved to pursue seasonal farm work at any time during the previous 36 months.

Mentoring an ASU CAMP participant. (Photo courtesy of Seline Szkupinski Quiroga)

Since some of these laborers are undocumented immigrants, they may hesitate to fill out the paperwork to enroll their children in a federally funded program. They fear that someone will ask for their immigration status, but Ramirez assures them that she just needs their signature and contact information to give their children the extra support and supplemental instruction that the Migrant Education Program offers.

“I let them know that we pay for college classes and have a program called the Pass Program that will allow them to advance beyond their grade level high school if they want to graduate before they’re scheduled to,” Ramirez said. “They can work at their own pace and request study packets from the program to work on.”

The Pass Program isn’t unique to Yuma; it’s part of a nationwide educational program based in Urbana, Illinois. A form of independent study, the program benefits migrant youth by allowing them to continue their coursework when school is out of session or they leave town to follow their farmworker parents. When they’ve completed one unit of coursework, they can take a test to see if they’ve mastered the material. If they have, they receive a second study packet and can test again after completing that.

Aglaé Mendez
Aglaé Mendez outside the White House. (Photo courtesy of Aglaé Mendez)

Aglaé Mendez, a 16-year-old Yuma student who will be starting 11th grade in the fall, has finished coursework through the Pass Program. Strong in math, she also recently finished a precalculus class at Arizona Western College, paid for by YUHSD’s Migrant Education Program. During spring and summer breaks, Mendez often heads to Huron, California, or parts of Mexico to be with her seasonal farmworker father. But in June, she took advantage of the opportunity to take a weeklong trip, along with other Yuma migrant students, to Washington, D.C. The excursion was designed to expose the students, many of whom had never been to the East Coast, a better understanding of how the government works.

“I wouldn’t consider it hard for me as a migrant student because I appreciate and love my Dad,” Mendez said. “He’s the one working in the fields. I do it for him because he does it for us. I don’t feel, ‘Oh, this is bad,’ because I appreciate my Dad, so I move as a way of thanking him, as a way of giving respect and thankfulness to my Dad.”

She also gives the Migrant Education Program credit for helping her transitions in and out of Yuma go as smoothly as possible. Mendez pointed out how the program has paid for school uniforms, school supplies, and glasses for migrant students. It also arranges tutoring for students who need academic help, and when migrant youth fall behind, they can expect a phone call home or even a home visit.

Formerly married to a seasonal farmworker, Ramirez has firsthand knowledge of the academic obstacles migrant families face. Initially, she and her children followed her ex-husband through different parts of California. Finding it too difficult to change schools mid-year, the family split up, with Ramirez’s spouse traveling alone and she and her children reuniting with him during the summers. Her 15-year-old still heads to Salinas for the summer to be with his father and is considered a migrant student as a result.

“It’s very, very complicated for our migrant students; they have to overcome a lot of barriers,” Ramirez said. “We have advisors go and talk to our students to ask if they’re missing assignments and if there’s anything we can do to get them caught up. We try to help our students stay on top of everything so they can succeed.”

Due to stereotypes about farmworkers, some educators assume that migrant children will fail or struggle to keep up. But Julie Taylor, executive director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, a faith-based advocacy group for farmworkers, said that these laborers want their kids to be high achievers academically.

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“Farmworkers — they want a better life for their children and generally see education as a path to that,” she said. “They make sacrifices for that.”

Taylor said that farmworkers may not see a way out of their low-paying profession, which requires “discipline, talent, and skills” that the public tends to overlook. Seasonal laborers, some of whom may not be able to help their children with schoolwork because of language barriers, count on schools to give migrant youth access to the opportunities denied to them. But the time these workers spend away from their children can make it challenging to be as involved in the school system as other parents.

Siria Gonzalez, a migrant advisor at Cibola High School in Yuma, said that even when farmworker parents are in the same household as their children, their dawn-to-dusk working hours may prevent them from spending much time with their children. While self-motivated students from these families may continue to devote themselves to their schoolwork, others fall behind and require intervention.

CAMP project participants volunteering at Project Cure in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Seline Szkupinski Quiroga)

“We look at attendance every day, if their percentage in the class is going up and down, if they’re missing assignments,” Gonzalez said. “If we see a student constantly missing assignments or their grades dropping, we make sure parents become aware of it.”

In extreme cases, Ramirez has headed out to the fields to speak with farmworkers whose children were slipping. She knows that farmworkers will suffer financially if they take a day off to meet with school staff, so she’s willing to visit them to work out problems.

“I’ll ask, ‘What time is your break,’ and I go all the way to the field and get muddy,” she said. “I think we have to take that extra step for our families if we want to service them the way we would want to be serviced. I wouldn’t want them to take a half-day off and lose their wages just because I need to get a signature from them. They thank me for being willing to do that.”

These actions send a message to migrant students, according to Gonzalez. The vigilance of the Migrant Education Program staff tells them that they won’t be allowed to give up on school without someone stepping in to help them change course. Having overworked parents and teachers who can’t always meet their needs doesn’t mean they’ll be allowed to fail.

Aglaé Mendez’s school trip to the U.S. Capitol. (Photo courtesy of the Yuma Union High School District)

“Just keeping track on a daily basis actually does help students see someone is checking up on them,” Gonzalez said. “They’ll be like, ‘I don’t want her to be pulling me out of my class. I’m going to get it together,’ and they start doing what they need to do — communicating with their teachers and making up for their absences.”

Adjusting to college life

The Migrant Education Program proved particularly helpful for José Alvarado during the college application process. In addition to ensuring that he had all of the credits necessary to graduate from high school, the staff helped him apply for financial aid for college.

“This is an area where the parents really request help,” Castillo said. “They want to know how they can take advantage of the financial opportunities that are out there.” He added that, this year, Migrant Education Program students received $2.3 million in awards for college.

In addition to financial support, the Migrant Education Program answers the lifestyle questions students have about college. It also connected ASU-bound José Alvarado to CAMP—the federally funded support program for migrant students at the university. Each year, about 2,500 young people across the country participate in CAMP, which sees about 75 percent of students go on to graduate from college.

In 2016, Arizona State first implemented CAMP and has accepted approximately 35 migrant students into the program annually. It is the only four-year academic institution in Arizona that has CAMP, according to Szkupinski Quiroga. She noted that CAMP selects participants based on their academic and social needs as well as their recent migrant history, students whose families are divided because of immigration laws or who can’t depend on their families to support them through college are also prioritized.

cooking class
A cooking class as part of preparation for college life through CAMP. (Photo courtesy of Seline Szkupinski Quiroga)

Once involved with CAMP, they can receive peer mentoring, assistance paying for glasses or medical expenses, and even access to technology, including laptops. Just setting foot on campus can send migrant students into culture shock, because they tend to come from rural areas with fairly homogenous populations, Szkupinski Quiroga said.

“ASU is really overwhelming, particularly if they’re at the Tempe campus, which could be larger than their home community,” she said. “[The university] is exciting and can be scary and overwhelming at the same time.”

The fact that their classmates and professors might not be familiar with migrant farmworkers may add to their sense of alienation. “They assume that migrant means immigrant,” Szkupinski Quiroga said. Migrant students also really miss their families and the home-cooked meals they ate before college; cafeteria food can be a major adjustment, she added. Complicating their homesickness is that some of their family members may not understand the demands of college mean that students can’t return home every weekend, as Yuma County, where most migrant students come from, is about a three-hour drive away.

CAMP staffers communicate with students and their families alike to help them better understand college life. José Alvarado said he’s been in “constant contact” with CAMP officials over the summer. They’ve never been too busy to answer even the most mundane questions, such as how much time he can expect to spend in class, studying for class, or having fun.

“As the first one in my family to go to college, it’s mostly me fact-checking, looking up how to do stuff,” said Alvarado, who plans to major in aerospace engineering.

Although he is grateful for the support he’s received from both Yuma Unified and Arizona State, he said that his family has ultimately played the biggest role in his success to date. He can now walk his siblings through the college application process once they reach his age, he said, and his parents have always motivated him to do well. He said it’s unfortunate that Americans don’t know more about migrant farmworkers and their contributions to their families.

“Most of the public views these type of jobs as low-skilled,” he said. “But the people that work these jobs—they’re great people. They have to go through so much it’s not even funny. They have my respect forever, so I want to succeed for my parents. They’re picking crops, not necessarily for themselves, but to make the next generation better, and that’s amazing.”

By Nadra Nittle

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