Magazine Feature

Follow the Stream

Schools foster a sense of belonging and achievement in the nomadic lives of migrant students.

The children see them every morning as they go to school: row upon row of sweet golden orbs and tart crimson spheres poking out from lush foliage. Like familiar friends waking to the sun's scorching heat, the orange groves and tomato fields wish a silent good morning to the students driving by in air-conditioned school buses.

On the way home in the afternoon, the children see these crops again, this time piled high in rough cardboard cartons or dirt-encrusted plastic buckets, placed there by hands the students know well. They are the brown, scarred hands of their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. Hands of migrant farmworkers who, often thanklessly, work the fertile farmlands of the nation's agricultural regions. Hands that have put food on American tables from generation to generation.

From California to Pennsylvania, Florida to Maine, approximately four million adult migrant farmworkers traverse the country, year in and year out, taking thousands of children along with them. Mostly of Mexican descent and citizens or legal residents of the U.S., they harvest here and plant there, shuttling "upstream" from home bases in predominantly Southern states and California to farms, lumber camps or processing plants in the East, Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

In decades gone by, few migrant children would have been lucky enough to peruse farm fields from a school bus window. As recently as 1988, despite the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that established the minimum age for farm work at 12 years, migrant children as young as 10 spent more time on the move in search of agricultural work than in schools.

According to Bridget McGilvra, a project specialist with the Eastern Stream Center on Resources and Training (ESCORT), it was the norm that children were expected to work in the fields during peak harvest times -- parents looked to them as additional breadwinners, growers looked to them as a pliant labor source, and truant officers were apt to look the other way. Though subject to the same compulsory schooling laws as other children, many young migrants themselves often preferred working in the heat of the fields to entering the cold and hostile environment of the classroom, where they were stigmatized as poor, dirty and alien.

Today, however, while still on the move, more migrant children -- with the support of their families -- are trading produce-laden buckets for book-laden backpacks. For many, the pursuit of an education, even if on the run, is their one-way ticket out of the fields.


Moving Against the Current

Thirty-five miles northeast of Naples, Fla., at Immokalee High School (IHS), Melissa Olvera's eyes flit over maps, words and pictures in the world geography book lying open on her desk. With lab instructor Jacob Lieb close by her side, she is taking a whirlwind tour of continents, oceans and mountainscapes. For Melissa, the 18-year-old daughter of migrant farmworkers, working at a hectic pace is part of the territory of being a migrant student, of being caught in a constant game of catch-up. Today, the vital one-on-one instruction she receives from Mr. Lieb is to help her catch up on lessons missed and those she will miss in the coming months.

"I'm behind on my credits because I come and go so much," observes the bubbly, fast-talking teenager. "Since 1979, my family has been coming and going. It's hard trying to keep up, but I'll work double." According to Melissa, her drive to "keep up" and "work double" is born of a burning desire to bring a sense of permanence to an unsettled life.

Her teacher observes: "When you think about the constant mobility of migrant kids, you can compare them to 'army brats' who have to move around a lot because their parents are in the service. Migrant students are under constant change, so making sure they get enough schooling is an important issue for teachers," says Lieb.

The issue takes on a distinct urgency for IHS teachers in the early spring of each year, because here in Immokalee, a town renowned nationwide as a major producer of winter vegetables and citrus fruits, people mark time by harvest seasons, not school calendars. Like scores of Mexican, Haitian and Guatemalan migrant teens that make up the student body of this rural south Florida high school, Melissa Olvera does not have the luxury of a whole school year to get all her studies in. With most of the crops in Immokalee already picked, processed and packed, it's time for her family to make the trek to Michigan where more ripe produce awaits.

"Having an education will mean I can stop traveling," she says. "My family and I always leave [for Michigan] during the last week of April and don't come back until the last week of October. It's OK moving around because we get to go out and meet people, but it would be better if we could stay in one spot." And where would that be? For Melissa, the answer is easy: She has traveled to other places where she has not been welcomed, to other schools where she has been isolated. But it's different in Immokalee, especially at the high school that has helped foster her sense of belonging.

IHS prides itself on being a family-oriented and community-run school where the needs of its 70 percent migrant student population are heard and met. It's common to find students working alongside parents and staff on the School Leadership Council, together mapping out the long-range academic direction of the institution. Teachers and migrant advocates help students find paid job-training opportunities in local businesses and nonprofit organizations. And IHS students openly affirm their heritages through school-sponsored cultural events such as Mexican Posadas (a Christmas celebration) and African American and Haitian-flavored "Soul Food Luncheons."

"One of the things we've heard a lot from kids, and one of the things we see, is that a lot of schools feel like migrants are not really their responsibility," says Ann Cranston-Gringras, director of the Center for the Study of Migrant Education at the University of South Florida (USF). "Migrant kids are going to move on, so nobody takes ownership. The kids don't feel a part of the school, and they become alienated." For the past 12 years, Cranston-Gringras has been working to reverse this trend.

One of her strongest allies is IHS principal Jeremiah Primus, a wiry, kinetic man who has staked his career on knowing what it means to be accountable to the children in his care. He knows, for example, that it means opening up to them by writing about your passion for fishing and motorcycling in the school newsletter so that they, in turn, will open up to you. It means spending frequent evenings in students' homes listening to the concerns of their parents. And it means being clear about your goals and philosophy. In the corner of his office stands a shovel inscribed "The Road To Success Is Always Under Construction." His efforts and successes earned Primus the title of Florida's 1997 Migrant Educator of the Year.

"Nobody rises to low expectations," he says. "As I've tried to provide leadership, I've looked at IHS in terms of 'What will our students be expected to do when they leave high school?'" To Primus, the answer involves having his students meet rigorous standards in the core subject areas of reading, writing and mathematics. In so doing, he hopes to raise graduation rates and his students' chances of making it to college.


A Bridge to Success

At a college-prep Migrant Student Leadership Institute held last summer at USF, 16-year-old Veronica Tovar, an honor student from Plant City High School, echoed Primus' sentiments and actions in her own way.

"A lot of teachers assume that we are not as smart as other kids because of the fact that we're migrant," says Veronica. "For example, we'll be studying a certain topic in class -- say politics -- and the teachers will think we know nothing about it. They ask other students and skip over us. If we nag at them, they'll start asking us. But it shouldn't take us nagging. Instead of challenging you more," she says, "they give you the answers, and that's sort of disappointing. I plan to study corporate law in college, and I don't like people handing me things because I'm migrant. I like to work for what I have."

When Primus took the helm of IHS four years ago, this same dissent was common among his students and community. He went out of his way to hire teachers who understand and believe in the intelligence of migrant students -- teachers like Alma Puentes Soto, herself an IHS alumna and a former migrant.

Taped to Puentes Soto's algebra classroom door is a hand-made "growth chart," a twisting, turning computer printout of a T-Rex dinosaur annotated from tail to head with every minute detail of the teacher's personal and professional evolution. From her first babysitting job on weekends to her attainment of a business degree, with stints of modeling, crop-picking and work as a teacher's aide sprinkled like fertilizer in between, her life path is in full bloom for all to see.

"I know what most of these kids have gone through and what they are going through now," confides the softspoken Puentes Soto. "I've been in schools where I was the only Mexican, where I was the only one with dark skin. I've seen how hard it is to be a migrant. I've picked in the fields. I've pulled out weeds. I know how hard it is to work in the sun all day and get minimum wages."

Puentes Soto says that her growth chart stands as a road map to the challenges she has overcome -- a replicable testament to perseverance. "For a lot of my kids, seeing is believing. With the chart, I can show them and tell them where I've been, how I financed my schooling and what I did to get my degree. I let them know that if I did it, then certainly they can, and that gives them hope."

To bolster the inspiration, she takes a pragmatic approach to bridging between migrant life and academic achievement. If you walk into one of Puentes Soto's math classes at the beginning of a period, you'll find students reading and discussing newspaper articles instead of calculating algebraic formulas. She knows that truly belonging to a wider world means being conversant in the issues and events that impact that world.

For instance, in December 1997 when several migrant farmworkers in Immokalee went on a hunger strike to raise a 20-year-old wage of 40 cents per bucket of picked produce to 60 cents per bucket, the story made news in local and national papers. Puentes Soto's students discussed the incident in her math class. When the grower finally met the farmworkers' demands, her students not only gleaned a greater understanding of labor relations and migrant economy but also found heroes within their own community of whom they and others were proud.

It's for moments like these that Puentes Soto says she returned to teach at her alma mater two years ago. "I feel like I have 60 kids when I only have one daughter," she says. "There's something about them that makes me want to get up in the morning."


Harboring Hopes and Dreams

Eight boys stand with teacher Margaret Rauh in the big empty room in the house on Stuckey Avenue.

"This is your house," she tells them, "and we'd like you to paint a beautiful mural on these blank walls. What do you want to paint? What do you want to see up here?"

"A sky," says one.

"With stars in it," adds another.

"And then a bus and a truck with a U-Haul driving at night. And then fields in the background," says yet another.

"We'll call it 'Night Dreams,'" adds the final voice. They all agree and then set to work planning the dimensions of the pictures they are going to create.

In years to come, the young artists' "Night Dreams" will welcome hundreds of migrant children like themselves as they wait for parents to finish out the harvest season in Florida before moving on to find more work in the Carolinas. Located in Quincy, adjacent to a bustling migrant camp near one of northwest Florida's top-producing tomato farms, the house is the new "on-the-road" headquarters of the Anchor School Project.

This innovative technology-based program, established by the SouthEastern Regional Vision for Education (SERVE) consortium, uses a network of portable computers and associated applications to provide both instructional and social mooring in the lives of migrant students. The Gargiulo produce company, which employs many Anchor parents, donated the house and supports the program through college scholarships and other provisions.

"We are trying to overcome the isolation these children feel by using technology to foster the continuity and community they need to achieve high standards," says Dr. Jean Williams, director of the Greensboro, N.C.-based project. With grant funding to keep the "virtual school" going for an initial five-year period, administrators hope to broaden participants' educational opportunities and engender a sense of constancy in their lives. The project's three "anchors" help students weather the choppy waters of the mainstream.

The first anchor involves "plugging in" migrant life to hi-tech resources: adding laptops, cables, diskettes and mouses to the essential inventory of clothes, food, Bibles and money taken on every move. Via an intranet system incorporating e-mail, chat groups and voice-mail boxes, the migrant students stay in constant communication with teachers, guidance counselors, family and friends left behind in home-base schools and communities.

Combining technology and broad-based teamwork, the second anchor utilizes the Internet to provide consistency in subjects the students study as they move from school to school.

"We've looked at the curriculums used in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina," says Williams, "seen where they match and don't match, and we've come up with a curriculum alignment publication containing elements from all three states."

This coordinated approach, Williams believes, can eradicate the jarring interruptions in learning that leave many migrants disoriented in the classroom. "Using the Web and lessons developed by teachers in the students' home-base schools in Florida, we're training teachers in the receiving schools in the Carolinas on how to integrate those lessons into their materials for the coming harvest season," she explains.

The third and perhaps most ambitious anchor is a team of traveling teachers, all of whom are bilingual in Spanish and English. For the duration of the project, a group of migrant education specialists, migrant college students and Americorps volunteers will migrate with the students as they move each harvest season. Dubbed the Instructional Support Team (IST), the educators train students and parents on computer basics and monitor the use of the technology en route. Perhaps more significantly, IST members receive special training on the home culture of the families -- many of whom came to Florida from Oaxaca, Mexico -- and on the social and emotional dimensions of migrant life.

"The families involved in our project are very child-centered, very loving and caring," Williams says. "But frequently they are hesitant to ask for help, either because they are shy or are concerned about their lack of English. So, part of our job will be to enhance their English skills, show them how the system works and how to access resources to help their children, especially how to ask good questions of the teachers so that they will get the information they need.

"There is quite a bit of research to show that as migrant families move upstream, communities are not as receptive to them," she observes. "So what we are trying to do is set up a system whereby somebody that is trusted -- a professional person -- will go with these students to open a door or two for them at the receiving sites and show the teachers that the children really bring a lot of skills and talent with them.

"We're also going to adapt an electronic portfolio system that will include samples of the children's work, so that when they leave here they can take a disk that has their portfolio on it with them, or their teachers in the receiving site can access it over the Web and look at what the kids have done," Williams says.

Among the items that might appear in a portfolio is an activity that IST member Holly Quaglia and another support teacher developed to help Anchor participants put a more affirmative spin on their constant movement.

"A lot of migrant students look at traveling as a negative thing because they are always moving and never really get to keep friends. So we thought of creating a travel log using the Internet to show the kids how travel can be a positive thing," says Quaglia.

As a starting point, Quaglia has the students pick a place of interest on a globe. She then helps them research that place on the Web, finding out such things as the mode of transportation required to get there, how much money the student would need to carry with them to live in the place of their choice for a specified period of time, and the customs and celebrations of the inhabitants. After researching, the students give a presentation to the class about the places they "visited" in their travel logs.

"Instead of having migrant life control how they travel," she says, "the students get a chance to develop their own trip. In preparing the log, they are using their math, reading and writing skills, while opening themselves up to other worlds."

New vistas, parents agree, are the heart of successful migrant education programs like Anchor and Immokalee -- new vistas of personal potential and of possibilities beyond the fields.

"Education is one of the first commandments I keep, and it's very important to my kids," says Irma Camacho, a migrant farmworker who is currently supporting her eldest son's pursuit of a business administration degree from Edison Community College in Fort Myers, Fla. "Working in the fields is hard, and I would rather have my kids in school where they can learn to do something else. It's better for them to have a career than to be picking tomatoes all the time."

According to Herbert Camacho, Irma's son, his mother is so adamant about his acquiring a good education that one day when he went to work in the fields she pushed him away and gave him a light scolding.

"She told me to look around at the other pickers and then asked me if I wanted to work like that all my life," says Herbert. "It kind of made me see more clearly where I'm going in college and what I really want. Right now we share a house with a community of tomato pickers. There are four small apartments in one house -- two little rooms and a kitchen and bathroom for one family, that's all. When I get my degree, I want to get my family out of here, get them a big, new house of our own."

With a will as strong as her forebears' calloused hands, college-bound senior Veronica Tovar seems destined to succeed outside the parameters of migrant culture also. Yet she knows that for many migrant students, a determined spirit can take them only so far in school.

"If I could change one thing about the education of migrants," she says, "I would have more teachers read up on our culture so they could understand who we are and what we go through -- that we are people, just like everybody else."

For Veronica and her fellow children of the migrant stream, a successful voyage through school is the one thing they believe will help them create more stable lives and paint truer portraits of themselves for a wider society to whom they are all but invisible. It is the one thing they believe will give credence to their claim that "Esté America, es nuestro país. Pertenecemos aquí, también -- This America, it is our country. We belong here, too."

Born Into 'the Life'

My father, like his father before him, and his father before him, was a farmworker. When he came to the United States to look for a better life and search for the American Dream at about the age I am now, my father found work as a farmworker in many states, such as Texas, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Kansas, and Florida. My mother, who was moving from state to state also with her family as they worked the fields, met my father in Florida while picking oranges. They fell in love and got married. When I came along, my parents were working together picking cucumbers in North Carolina. Even when my mother was carrying me in her womb, she was still out there in the fields working, picking cucumbers.


You can say I was born into "the life," like a prince would be born into nobility; only I was born into "the life of the migrant," a life of poverty in most cases. I would be sent to school and played like the other kids, but the major difference would be the summers. My mom and dad, my two younger brothers, and I would make the annual trip to North Carolina where I would be working the fields beside them.


I remember waking up early in the morning while the air was freshest in the North Carolina mountains. I remember feeling the heat in the middle of the day when the sun was the brightest, and its heat would pound on a person to the point where it would sting. I also remember the relief when the day's work was done. I remember the setting of the sun on the way home in the van used to transport the workers. The setting sun, which was unnoticed by everyone, except for me, seemed to reach out, caress me while warming my face pressed up against the window. I would turn around then and lean up against my mother sitting right beside me as she wrapped her arms around me, and I would fall asleep most of the time.


This is how I spent most of my summers as a child. During the rest of the year, we would migrate back down to Florida where we would return to nursery work. I would go back to school and in the afternoons stay with my cousins at my grandmother's house waiting anxiously for my parents to show up.


The experience of being a child of a farmworker has driven me to try to better my life by doing the best I can in everything I do. Although being a child of a farmworker is rough and not many people would endure it, it is a part of me that I will never forget and will always carry inside to motivate me in all I do. I am standing at the edge of tomorrow, and today it is up to me how far I go.


Excerpted from Luis' original essay, which won first place in the 1998 Richard A. Bove Migrant Students' Poets and Writers Festival. A booklet containing the works of other entrants in this annual competition is available for a $5 donation to the Richard A. Bove Memorial Fund. For more information, contact Earl Wiggins, (800) 949-1916.

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