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An inside look: Schooling migrant families

This in-depth reporting from EducationNC Senior Reporter Alex Granados was conducted over the past year with the support of Education Week's 2017 Gregory M. Chronister Fellowship. Granados is the inaugural recipient of the fellowship and worked closely with Education Week editors and staff to complete the project.

Hope Derry and Janett Nunez Meza are not a threatening pair. Derry is an unassuming 30-year-old from Ohio, and Nunez Meza is a 40-year-old originally from Nicaragua.  

The two work for the Bladen County migrant education department, recruiting migrant students into the program and working with older youths who are not in school to help them get their General Educational Development credentials or learn English. It’s their job to show up at farmworker camps and talk with workers. 

The first time they came to Thunder Camp, one of the camps that house migrant workers at a nearby farm, they encountered a group of workers in their late teens and early 20s. 

One task that migrant education recruiters have to do when signing up migrant workers for their programs is ask their names and where they’re coming from. One said he had to get his ID because he didn’t know his birthday. (Out-of-school youths must prove they are between 18 and 21 to join the educational program for older youths.)

He never came back.  

“He had jumped out the window and run away,” Derry said she later learned. 

The anecdote illustrates one of the challenges of providing educational services to migrant farmworkers: gaining their trust—especially now as anti-immigrant rhetoric escalates at the national level. Other challenges abound: disrupted schooling, competing with the lure of paid work, language barriers. These difficulties add up and are reflected in poor academic outcomes for this vulnerable group of students. Less than a third of migrant students score at or above proficient levels on their states’ annual reading and language arts assessments.

In this part of the country, migrant workers pick blueberries, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and tobacco, work on Christmas-tree farms, or have other jobs that require them to move from county to county and state to state. North Carolina is a stop on a typical migrant-worker route. Workers might start on the East Coast in Florida, picking tomatoes, oranges, or any number of other crops; pass through to North Carolina, where they may work with tobacco or blueberries; and end up in Michigan, harvesting everything from arugula to zucchini before starting over again.

Inevitably, some of these workers bring their families, which means migrant students are going in and out of school districts around the country as their parents move for work.

Overall, more than 840,000 immigrant students are in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and many migrant students are a subset of this group. About 302,000 children and youths were eligible for migrant education services in the United States for the 2016-17 school year, according to the most recent data from the Education Department. Of those, about 28,000 are out-of-school youths. Some of these young people came directly from other countries, either alone or with parents. Some are American-born children of parents who immigrated here to do migrant work. Some are here undocumented, and some arrive on H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers.

The out-of-school-youth program serves students who are of an age to qualify for migrant education services but are doing migrant work rather than going to school. Migrant education departments provide services in hopes of helping them finish high school, get a GED, maybe start thinking about college, or, at least, get some supplementary education help, such as learning English. The state migrant education programs are essentially part of the federal migrant program. They receive their funding directly from the federal government, though it is up to the state to decide how the program should be run. Some school districts serving this population can also use federal Title I funds targeted to schools with high percentages of low-income children.

One of the main goals of migrant education services is to get and keep children in school. Because of the educational disruptions that come as students move between school systems, learning is even more difficult than for the typical student. Meanwhile, the attraction of work is always there. Often, students drop out of school to labor in the fields full time. 

That’s what happened to Rosalva Salazar.

Salazar lives in family housing at a work camp in Bladen County with her parents, sister, husband, and two children—ages 5 and 3. The family migrates from Florida to North Carolina and then to Michigan, before repeating the trip all over again each year.

Salazar’s parents made the same trip when she was a child. Salazar said she used to like Florida, because that’s where she started the school year. By the time she got to North Carolina, though, she would often find that she was being taught what she had already learned in Florida. That seemed like a waste of time to her.

“What’s the point of school?” she remembers thinking. 

She dropped out in ninth grade and started doing migrant farmwork full time. In retrospect, she said the decision wasn’t well thought out. 

“I just didn’t want to go to school anymore. I already knew how to work. … I didn’t mind working,” Salazar said. 

She regrets it now. At 24, she is too old to qualify for North Carolina’s migrant education program, but she is still trying to get her GED.

Like Salazar, migrant students are in North Carolina for a short portion of the school year. Rachel Wright Junio, the point person for the state’s migrant education program, said North Carolina’s migrant-student population—4,722 students were eligible for services last year—is medium-sized compared with the big migrant-worker strongholds of California, Florida, and Texas.

Every day, some of those students are boarding buses or other modes of transportation and traveling to their local schools, trying to learn alongside their peers. But the challenges they face are different from those of their classmates.

The migratory pattern—from Florida to North Carolina in the spring—presents problems, especially in high school. Junio explained that some Florida high schools operate differently from those in North Carolina. In the Tar Heel State, many high school students have four classes a semester and end it with one credit in each class. But in Florida, students can have one semester with eight classes. At the end of the semester, they have a half credit in each of those eight classes. 

That means when some migrant students arrive in North Carolina in the spring, they have eight half credits, no full credits, they haven’t taken their final exams in Florida, and they arrive just in time to take a high-stakes state exam they aren’t prepared for. 

North Carolina tries to address that in a few ways. One is an online credit-recovery system, so that students can complete some of the classes for which they’ve received half-credits. While almost all districts in North Carolina offer these online credit-recovery programs, Junio said, many migrant students don’t have access to internet from their homes. 

The migrant education programs will find a way for those students to get online—by providing access after school to a location with internet access, hot spots, or iPads with built-in internet. 

“What we also try to do is … enroll the child in whatever four of those eight credits are necessary for graduation,” Junio said. Migrant education programs also work to get students the English, math, science, and social studies credits they need so they can end the year with at least four full credits.

Florida’s Portable Assisted Study Sequence, or PASS, allows migrant students to work semi-independently to recover lost credits, and Junio said several migrant students coming from that state use PASS when they migrate to North Carolina. 

But these challenges can be too much for migrant students, who see working alongside their parents on the farm as a reasonable option. All students in North Carolina are required to be in school until age 16, except in a few districts that are experimenting with a pilot program to raise the dropout age to 18. 

“That’s why we see migrant students who are dropping out in the ninth grade,” Junio said. “They make money and they can support themselves and they’re not doing so great in school.”

Nunez Meza, one of the education workers who encountered the young man who fled out the window, understands well the plight of migrant farmworkers.

She moved to North Carolina about 12 years ago from Nicaragua and has been working with Bladen County’s migrant education department for a little more than two years. Her husband was hired by Smithfield Foods and the company brought him and other workers over from her home country along with their families. As a spouse, she was legally allowed to work for one year, so she spent it working in a McDonald’s. After that, she worked in the blueberry fields for five years. 

Nunez Meza transitioned to working from home, taking care of her house and children and babysitting. She knew about the county’s migrant education department because her family took part and she visited the department a few years ago to talk about volunteering. The department eventually hired her as a recruiter. 

“I really like my job now because … I know how these people feel,” she said. “They say this is a really hard job, and I know it’s really hard,” she said of farmwork.

Bladen County, located in southeast North Carolina, has the biggest migrant education program in the state. It’s also the fourth largest county by land area. With a little more than 33,000 people, according to the U.S. Census, the county has plenty of space for farmland. In 2017-18, Bladen County had 196 documented out-of-school youths and 365 migrant children.

The process Nunez Meza and Derry go through each year begins with the schools. They’re notified when families arrive, then they visit the families to see if they’re qualified for the migrant education program.

“We knock on every door,” Nunez Meza said. “And we explain how we can help.”

But that doesn’t cover out-of-school youths who may not even know they’re eligible for services. It’s up to Nunez Meza and Derry to get families signed up for school and out-of-school youths enrolled in the program. 

To find potential students, the pair need to go where migrants work.

“We kind of know which farms have who and when they come,” Derry said. 

They establish contacts at the farms. These might be families they’ve already recruited or out-of-school youths, but they get their phone numbers and then find out when migrant workers arrive at the camp, when they’re working and when they’re not, and when is the best chance to find them. That’s what Nunez Meza and Derry were doing when the young man slipped away at Thunder Camp. The pair haven’t had any other incidents at the camp since that day.  

“It’s a good day to catch them if it’s raining,” Derry said. Sundays are good, too, because the workers are usually off—unless they are spending the day at Walmart or the market. 

On a recent outing, Nunez Meza and Derry traveled across the county, stopping at a migrant camp for a recruiting trip and dropping off backpacks and supplies at one family’s house for the children. Derry finished up the day alone, providing English instruction for a family and two out-of-school youths at a trailer park. All that adds up to a day for Bladen migrant education workers: a little bit of conversation here, a backpack drop-off there, some English help to wrap things up. Some days are busier than others, and mostly, this summer was busy, despite the national political debates over immigration from Central and South America, where many of these families originate. 

At the camp, Nunez Meza got caught up in conversation with a man she said she has encountered many times before.

He asked her about the services the department provides. She asked what help he wants. He said maybe more work. She said they can’t help with that but can with other services. He asked why they need people’s names in order for them to get help. 

“When you were hired, you had to give your name,” she told him. “It’s the same thing.” 

Derry’s English class that day appeared relatively impromptu. It took place inside a trailer housing a family whose young children will soon begin school. The two out-of-school youths came from neighboring trailers to take part. 

Derry taught them simple things like spatial language: “above,” “below,” “besides.” She used a large piece of construction paper with a toy car to demonstrate.

Derry recruited more than 190 out-of-school youths over the summer—30 in one day. 

Depending on where in the state you go, the migrant education population can change radically. Bladen County is in the Southeast, where blueberries, sweet potatoes, and tobacco are common. In Buncombe County, in the western part of the state, the crops include strawberries and tomatoes. 

The migrant education population in Buncombe County is smaller than in Bladen. For 2017-18, Buncombe had 192 migrant education students total. Of those students, 154 were K-12, nine were out-of-school youth, and the rest were pre-K. 

So far, in 2018-19, the county has 136 migrant education students enrolled. 

Nancy Moore, an outreach specialist at Buncombe migrant education, said her county is a little different from others because migrant families often come for seasonal work and end up staying. She said it’s likely because they have family in the area, though she doesn’t know for sure. 

“When they stay, they might continue to do farm work seasonally, but they have to be doing other work to survive,” she said. 

The bulk of the migrant workers in Buncombe County come over the summer. The picking season lasts into September, October, and sometimes as late as November when the frost hits. After the season is over, the workers usually go to Florida next. 

Buncombe County has the opposite situation of Bladen. Bladen receives migrant students at the end of the school year, whereas they come to Buncombe at the beginning. 

Like many migrant education departments, Buncombe has a relatively small permanent staff of a coordinator and an outreach specialist, and then brings in more folks to buttress the department during the height of the season. 

Since most of their students come in the summer, the department spends a lot of time working on summer activities. 

This year, they’re funding younger migrant students to go to YMCA camps. They work with Cooperative Extension of Buncombe County to get kids into a 4H camp in July, as well.

The department also works with the schools during the school year, helping with language problems, providing tutoring, and helping the older students think about their futures. 

Henderson County in western North Carolina has a similar migrant work season as Buncombe, and they also focus heavily on activities over the summer, including getting migrant students into the Boys & Girls Club.

Back in August of 2017, Henderson County had a population of 175 migrant students in its schools. That had dropped to about 30 by April. Like most counties, the population is heavily concentrated in the lower grades, before students start dropping out. 

The migrant education program in Henderson County puts eight migrant-specific workers in the Boys & Girls Club over the summer to work with the students. Since the families stay in Henderson County only for the beginning of the school year, Simone Wertenberger, director of the migrant education program, said it’s important to get the students’ baseline academic needs addressed over the summer. Migrant education staff try to assess the students to see how advanced they are as far as reading and math, so that when schools start, teachers already know what they should be working on. 

Normally, in elementary school, all students don’t get assessed until the third or fourth week of school. They’re usually put into an intervention group in the fifth week of school. By that time, many of the migrant students might be preparing to leave, so getting them assessed over the summer is crucial. 

“They can hit the ground running,” Wertenberger said. 

Whereas in Bladen County, teachers have to struggle with getting an influx of students they don’t know at the end of the school year, Wertenberger said Henderson County has to deal with the frustration of having students leave early in the year. 

“Because the students tend to begin the year with the teachers, there’s a lot of pain,” she said. 

Part of the services the migrant education department provides is getting a good read on when families are going to leave so they can prepare the migrant students, the students’ classmates, and even the teachers for the departure. They explain to the students that their friend is leaving and why. 

“Truly because they leave instead of come, there is more a sense of loss,” Moore said. 

In Michigan—where many of North Carolina’s migrant population travels—the focus is on connecting with other states to better coordinate services.

“We have really tried to improve communication among the adults,” said Michelle Williams, a migrant educational consultant with the state’s education department. This is especially important in an era where the topic of migration and immigration is an especially touchy subject. As the issue has become increasingly politicized in the United States, migrant families have become less trusting, Williams said.

“It’s definitely happening, and the challenges are there and our families are scared,” she said. 

That’s why the local recruiter is so important, Williams said. People on the ground, like Derry in Bladen County, interacting with families help to overcome these fears. 

Although Derry believes she is successful in establishing trust with families and workers, she said she is not sure what more can be done by migrant education departments to help further students’ schooling. They will always come up against the fact that migrant students come for a while and then leave.

The enormity of the task is reflected in achievement statistics.

Just under 30 percent of migrant education students in the United States scored at or above proficient on their states’ reading/language arts assessments in grades 3-8, according to the 2016 program-performance report from the Migrant State Agency Program, part of the federal Education Department.

The national target that year was 44.1 percent, according to the report, based on data from 47 states. For math, 28.5 percent of migrant education students were at or above proficient. The target was 47.6 percent.

Those poor numbers are echoed in North Carolina, where a large gap exists between migrant and nonmigrant students on the state’s end-of-year tests, said Junio, the state’s migrant education point person. “The majority of them are not proficient up to this point,” she said.

If a migrant family settles, it eventually falls off the migrant education rolls and becomes the sole responsibility of local school districts.

Junio said that the state’s rolls of migrant students have been shrinking over the past three or so years. Some of that may be because migrant families are finding more stable work at places like poultry-processing plants. But weather—late frosts and hurricanes—is also a big influence. 

Until migrant families can find stability, migrant education departments struggle to keep their children in school and out of the fields.

Hunter Ogletree, the coordinator of the migrant education program in Henderson County, said that in most cases, migrant students in schools there aren’t going to work in the fields. But that isn’t just circumstance, he said. It’s the result of hard work by his office: the recruiters, parent liaisons, and others.

“When there is a vacuum of service in the area, that’s when you see the students going out to work with their parents,” he said.

Read a history of the federal migrant education program. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.