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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Girls and Boys, Interrupted: Working to Fill Gaps in Migrant Students' Education

Forty years after federal recognition, the educational lot of migrant students has improved, but keeping transient kids connected to learning is still a major challenge.
By Catherine LaCroix

Imagine being pulled out of school to work in a field picking fruit, or moving from state to state, week by week, as seasonal crops are harvested. For the nearly 900,000 migrant kids throughout America, this is a way of life, and education is the only way most of these migrant children will break away from a cycle of subsistence living that is their parents’ reality.

A migrant child -- defined by section 1309 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 as a child who is a migratory agricultural worker who has moved in the preceding thirty-six months to obtain temporary or seasonal employment in agricultural work, or who has one or more parents who fit this description -- faces a formidable array of challenges, including language problems, lack of access to educational programs while his or her family travels, problems with transportation, inadequate or nonexistent basic health and social services, and work or family responsibilities that may limit school attendance.

Exacerbating these problems is the disruptive effect of multiple moves during the course of the school year. Not surprisingly, this transience can lead to low test scores and add another level of complexity to an already difficult situation. A 2002 study by Chester Hartman, director of research at the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, found that students who move more than three times within six years will likely fall behind by one grade level. The mobility patterns of many migrant students often include several moves within a single year, a fact Hartman says exacerbates the problem.

Maria Martinez knows firsthand what it’s like to work around an interrupted education, so she wants to make sure today’s migrant kids know they have options. A child of migrant farm workers, she has followed the harvest from Texas to Illinois each year since childhood. As an adult, after earning her general equivalency diploma at night school in 1971, she began to work with migrant families as a recruiter at the migrant camps near Hoopeston, Illinois. She began walking kids to school, then drove them.

“It hurt me so bad when I was told I couldn’t go to school,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone to check on me, so I didn’t think anyone cared whether I was there or not. Now, I try to make sure that these kids know there are people and programs that can help them.”

One recipient of Martinez’s attention is Yesenia Salina, who has migrated with her family each year along the same route Martinez has taken to pick fruit and harvest corn. Salina is looking forward to graduation and either joining the U.S. Marines Corps or going to college, but education has been challenging. “For me, it was sad to leave during school,” she says. “Also, it was stressful, because you’re moving somewhere where you don’t know anybody.” And each move brings the awkwardness that accompanies enrolling in a new school. “When I walked into a new class, it felt like the first time I had to go to Head Start,” Salina says. “Everybody just stared at you.”

It’s All About the MATEMATICA

But programs such as MATEMATICA (Math Achievement Toward Excellence for Migrant Students and Professional Development for Teachers in Math Instruction Consortium Arrangement), a summer session designed especially to help migrant students work on math and reading skills at all grade levels, offer many kids the opportunities Martinez did not have. The two-year program, part of an eight-state consortium, serves migrant students ages 3–12 who move from Texas (home to more than 116,000 migrant students) to Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Montana, New York, Virginia, or Wisconsin.

The program is unique in that it adapts curricula of PASS (Portable Assisted Study Sequence) as well as Project SMART (Summer Migrants Accessing Resources Through Technology), a national distance-learning program for migrant students. MATEMATICA differs from other programs in that it incorporates both literacy and language development in addition to math instruction.

“It’s a way for states to work together and address the NCLB goals in reading and math,” says Pat Meyertholen, a migrant-education program specialist in Austin, Texas.

Early results of the program, which began in 2005 and ended with the summer 2006 session, indicated that it had a positive affect on students’ mastery of reading and math skills. According to META Associates, an independent assessment firm that gathered the data on the program, 73 percent of the students who attended MATEMATICA classes in 2005 showed gains in both math and reading skills. All students were tested when they started the program to get a baseline indicator of their skills, then were evaluated each week to monitor progress. At the end of the eight weeks, they were given a final exam.

In its first year, 3,104 students participated in MATEMATICA; in 2006, 2,154 students were involved. The program may or may not have served the same students in 2006, however, making it difficult to track progress and the program’s overall effectiveness. According to Meyertholen, in 2005, 361 of 502 Texas migrant students (72 percent) scored at proficient or advanced levels on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. After participating in MATEMATICA during 2006, 90 percent of 529 such students scored at these levels on the TAKS. In 2005, 6 out of 18 Montana migrant students scored at proficient or advanced levels on the Montana Comprehensive Assessment state math assessment, and the 2006 MontCas results indicate that 8 out of the same 18 students scored as well after participating in MATEMATICA.

Students start the program in Texas and then can pick it up in any other state where the consortium is involved. The high school students earn course credit, which is entered into the New Generation System, a Web-based migrant-student data-collection system accessible to all its consortium member states; teachers can access the information back in the students’ home states.

No Records = No Education

Still, as many as 5,258 students served by MATEMATICA are only a fraction of the total number of migrant kids nationwide. According to the most recent Title 1 Migrant Education Program Trends Summary report, published by the U.S. Department of Education, between 1998 and 2001, the MEP eligible population grew by 9 percent, from 783,867 to 854,872 children. During the regular school term, states reported serving 622,271 students, less than three-fourths of those eligible. (Three states, California, Texas, and Florida, account for 52 percent of the migrant-student population.)

Because these students are transient, it’s difficult to keep track of their academic and health records, a particular concern to educators, because that can be a factor that holds up progress in school. Yet the Migrant Student Record Transfer System, the national database established in 1969 to keep track of this data for all migrant children enrolled in U.S. schools, was dismantled in 1995. The old mainframe system was evaluated in 1988 by the National Commission on Migrant Education, which found that it had become a reporting tool for state data rather than an instrument used for the exchange of student information.

“With the old system, there was at least a national repository for data,” says Angela Branz-Spall, the ESEA Title 1 migrant director in Montana. “You didn’t get information quickly -- it was mailed or faxed -- but at least it existed.”

As migrant students move throughout the school year, one of the biggest problems states face is obtaining the students’ records. Without these records readily available, migrant students may not be able to enroll in school, further disrupting an already fractured education. In addition, teachers often need to adjust quickly to new students entering the classroom after school has begun. “If someone comes in and knows very little English, we try to pair them up with a student who can help with translation,” says Carolyn Eyrich-Mastin, an elementary school teacher in Hoopeston, Illinois. “Trying to meet their needs is the biggest challenge teachers face. We need to assess where they are quickly and what you can work on to best meet the needs of that child.”

According to Montana’s Angela Branz-Spall, it’s difficult for teachers to pick up the educational thread when they don’t know where the students left off. “Problems can occur when health records are not readily available and the parents are poor and not self-advocating,” she adds. “These families need assistance, someone who can speak for them.”

Human Problem, Technology Solution

A new national records-exchange system is in the works, however. The U.S. Department of Education awarded the contract for the Migrant Student Records Exchange Initiative to Deloitte Consulting in September 2006. The goal of the MSIX is to incorporate the most current Internet-based technologies to aggregate the information contained in all current state-run systems. Not everyone believes the approach to the creation of this system is the best one, however, because it was awarded to a for-profit corporation. “It’s not just a tech question,” says Branz-Spall. “There’s no one involved who understands the particular needs of migrants.”

“When the old system was dismantled, migrant students suffered mightily as a result,” says Roger Rosenthal, executive director of the Migrant Legal Action Program, in Washington, DC, who for twenty-five years has worked as an advocate for migrant children and their families. “The new system is ten years overdue.” He shares Branz-Spall’s concern over awarding the contract to a for-profit company. “If it’s not properly developed and implemented in a meaningful manner,” he adds, “it’s a waste of money.”

A Department of Education representative responded to the criticism with this statement: “In order to ensure the best value is obtained, the federal government held a free and open competition to award a contract for the design, development, and maintenance of the Migrant Student Information Exchange. The MSIX will be deployed using a pilot approach; the first pilot will be this month, the second pilot in June 2007, and the national deployment will be September 2007.

“The department, working in partnership with the states, has the responsibility to ensure that the MSIX addresses the needs of migrant children and the schools and programs serving them -- which includes obtaining ongoing feedback from users,” the statement continues. “Since awarding the MSIX contract, the department has received feedback from state representatives during two user conferences and is scheduled to conduct another user conference in late March 2007. The department will continue its practice of obtaining state feedback through user conferences and national meetings as the MSIX project progresses.”

According to the contract, administrators in all fifty states must agree to report information about children of migrant workers; coordinating that effort will be Deloitte’s responsibility. Each child of migrant workers will be represented in the system by a consolidated file containing up-to-date information, including schools where the child has been enrolled, courses taken, grades earned, and credit accrued, along with immunization information.

The Crucial Harvest: Graduation

This system is somewhat irrelevant in California, however, because migrant families travel mostly within the state or from Mexico. The state has about 330,000 migrant students -- approximately one-third of the total U.S. migrant-student population -- and about 60 percent of the state’s school districts have migrant students in their classrooms. According to Ruben Patron, assistant superintendent of the Merced County Office of Migrant Education, in central California, one of the biggest issues those students face is accruing credits to graduate, because they often fall behind quickly.

Like many states, California uses the Portable Assisted Study Sequence (PASS) Program, a workbook-based high school program for migrant students in grades 9–12 designed to provide curriculum aligned with the California Content Standards via portable units of study so that migrant high school students throughout the state can receive credits toward graduation. “These are independent-study units that students can work on as they travel from place to place so they can earn course credits,” says Patron, “and it’s aligned with California state standards. However, one of the main goals in California is to get students to remain at their own high school.”

(On July 2, 2007, the California Migrant Education Project Pipeline awarded grants totaling $950,000 to six California counties with large migrant populations to support more migrant students in their efforts to enter college.)

It’s clear that the ongoing effort to bring education to migrant students is essential. “They are hard-working, intact families who want their children to succeed,” says Montana’s Angela Branz-Spall, “but they need support and guidance as to how to achieve this.” The Migrant Legal Action Program’s Roger Rosenthal agrees: “Migrant farmworkers cannot make a good living in farm work. Education allows them access to choices.”

Catherine LaCroix is a freelance writer based in Oregon.

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