A helping hand for migrant students

In the San Luis Valley, migrant workers build community around student success.

 

Jasmine Rodriguez stood in a conference room in Washington D.C., before dozens of her peers. For an entire week last April, the 17-year-old high school junior, who’d come to the nation’s capital from Center, Colorado, had been debating student after student from around the country, defeating nearly every opponent. But this round made her uneasy: Her task was to argue against immigration. This was particularly difficult because Rodriguez, who grew up in Mexico, was surrounded by the children of migrant workers.

She argued the case, and felt great when she stepped off the podium. Afterwards, a woman from Georgetown Law School came up and gave her a business card, encouraging her to look into law schools someday.

Rodriguez was afforded the opportunity to travel to D.C. by the Migrant Education Program, which offers educational and social services to migrant worker families in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The program, which moved into a new building in Alamosa on Adams State University’s campus in September, is growing in popularity among the valley’s migrant worker population, and has recently begun to focus on getting migrant students geared up for college — even as its budget tightens at the state level.

Jasmine Rodriguez in her bedroom in Center, Colorado.
Nick Valdes

Farm work ranks among the most backbreaking, low-paying jobs in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, most workers make between $10,000 and $12,500 a year, even though they often work overtime and face exposure to pesticides, heat, and frequent injuries. Most migrant workers are undocumented or working on temporary visas, and often fear speaking out about working conditions because they need to return each season.

According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, seventh grade is the average highest grade completed by migrant workers. Their children often work on farms after school or during summers, and drop out to stay and work in the fields. Research suggests that migrant students often have the highest dropout rates of any demographic.

To track migrant students’ movements and outcomes, the federal government established the Migrant Education Program in 1966. The program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Education, provides states funding to ensure migrant students graduate high school or earn their GED to prepare them for college or employment. According to the Department of Education’s most recent data, 47 states now use it to find eligible children, track them in the public school system, and support them outside of school. More than 232,000 students are involved with the program nationally, which offers academic instruction, remediation, bilingual and multicultural instruction, counseling and guidance, health services, and preschool education. To qualify, students must move every three years to another school district with a parent who intends to work in seasonal or temporary agriculture, fishing, logging, or dairy production.

Colorado’s program, which has five regional offices that serve 4,500 students, focuses on math, graduation, reading, and school readiness. The program is particularly welcome in the San Luis Valley, one of the poorest regions in Colorado, whose robust agricultural industry makes it a popular destination for migrant workers. About 10,000 of the valley’s 40,000 residents are migrant seasonal laborers who work mostly in potato harvesting and on mushroom and lettuce farms.

Every year, the San Luis Valley branch of Colorado’s program, which receives about $1 million per year, serves about 500 students, ages 3 to 22, in 23 regional school districts. Most students are of Mexican descent, but a growing number of Central American families, as well as Nepalese and Burman students, participate as well. Each regional program must report data on their students’ movements to the state, and also tracks behavioral issues, grades, and attendance rates.

In the San Luis Valley’s program, six employees — including a parent liaison, data specialist, recruiters, and advocates — retain relationships with hundreds of migrant worker families, school administrators, and teachers. They offer everything from tutoring, to doctor and dentist referrals, to school supply drives, to a program that helps teachers and school districts better educate students from Mexico. The employees work long hours, often on weekends and evenings, going door to door to recruit and engage families; they also provide rides to make sure families attend events and tutoring sessions.

“We want to show the families, just because you are a migrant, you are still a part of society,” says Christina Vargas, the program’s administrative specialist. “You are human beings.”

Jasmine Rodriguez’s mother, Anita, appreciates the aid the program has provided her daughter. While Jasmine was in D.C, administrators sent Anita videos and photos of her daughter debating and exploring the city. The elder Rodriguez has also attended parent workshops to learn how to better communicate about immigration issues. Born in Colorado, Anita has been a migrant worker since she was 9 years old; during her childhood, her family traveled to and from Guanajuato, Mexico to dozens of farms across the South, Midwest, and West for months at a time. Anita and her husband, who was deported, raised their two daughters in Chihuahua, Mexico, and while they were young, she often traveled back and forth to work during harvest season.

A truck carries freshly harvested potatoes near Center, Colorado.
Nick Valdes

Three years ago, Jasmine Rodriguez was recruited to the Migrant Education Program when she arrived in the U.S. with her mother before eighth grade. Anita still works in the fields during potato harvest, which is why she pushes Jasmine to take advantage of every opportunity to travel. “I don’t want her to end up doing what I had to do, working in the fields,” Anita says. Now, her daughter mentors and tutors other students after school, takes college-level English courses, plays volleyball and soccer, and cheerleads.

This year, Rodriguez was also one of 30 students who participated in the new Migrant STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Academy, which was developed with Adams State’s STEM program. This year, the students, who earn a college credit for participating, took courses on STEM careers, traveled to New Mexico to fly in gliders, and spent a week on campus, living in the dorms and being immersed in a college atmosphere — a particularly valuable experience, given that nearly all the students would be first-generation college attendees. As a result, says Jordan Witt-Araya, an advocate and program specialist, “They felt more confident about the things they had to do [to go to college], like finding financial aid, building relationships with their counselors and teachers, and thinking intentionally about internships and volunteer opportunities.”

In its new location on the Adams State campus, the Migrant Education Program’s cozy, cream-colored adobe house is filled with wooden floors, conference tables, and student artwork. There’s a roomy backyard with a patio, allowing the program to host events like free potlucks for migrant families. The Migrant Education Program also partners with separate government programs, like the College Assistance Migrant Program, which offers scholarships for one year for migrant students, as well as mentoring, tutoring, and financial help for school supplies.

But relying on federal funding begets challenges, mostly financial. Many students drop out after freshman year because they can’t afford tuition. According to program employees, budget cuts have made it difficult to provide school supplies, administer clothing donations, and offer rides to families. Over the next four years, the Migrant Education Program’s budget will be cut up to 10 percent at the national level because of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which goes into effect July 2017. It remains unclear how regional programs like the San Luis Valley’s will be affected.

A related issue is staff turnover. Building trust with families is critical to keeping them involved, and it takes a long time. Although the Migrant Education Program requires employees to be bilingual, the San Luis Valley program also want recruiters to speak Guatemalan to serve the area’s large population. Coupled with long hours and little pay, it’s a hard position to fill.

Jasmine Rodriguez said she feels lucky to be involved, but guilty that so many migrant students are left out. She’s also frustrated because she wants her peers to understand how much they can achieve, despite the stigma of being the child of a migrant worker.

Before she advanced to high school, she had to repeat eighth grade because the school didn’t think her English was strong enough. Now, ever more confident in her skills, Rodriguez wants to attend Colorado State in Fort Collins and become an immigration lawyer. “I want to use my languages,” she said. “I’m at more of an advantage because I’m bilingual.”

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.