Changing school with the season

Nearly 1 million migrant students - long a hidden minority - inch their way out of the shadows in US classrooms.

Twice her family has made the journey from Ciudad Juárez, on the Mexican border, through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon, to settle in eastern Washington's verdant Yakima Valley.

The first time, back in 2001, they came so Marie's husband, a migrant farm worker, could harvest hops - the bitter plants used to make beer. Last year they came again looking for work. And in this town of 8,000, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, they began picking apples.

It took five days for the family of seven - Marie, her husband, Armando, and their five children - to reach Grandview. They'd planned to drive straight through, but ran out of money along the way. Each night, they slept together in their silver minivan.

Now they describe it as an adventure: Christina, the oldest, dubbed the van their "five-star hotel." Marie remembers glimpsing the Hoover Dam. Press just a little, though, and Marie will admit that enduring a trip of more than 1,500 miles, even twice, has been two times too many for both her and her children.

It's a passage that hundreds of thousands of migrant families make round-trip year after year. Armando is just one of more than a million farm workers who move as crops ripen and seasons turn.

But for Marie, ya basta. Enough. "I don't plan on moving no more," she says, her round face turning uncharacteristically somber. "My kids suffered the most, and that's not fair."

Marie completed elementary and high school in the small Texas town where she was born. She hopes to give her children the same opportunity.

Because Armando is an illegal immigrant, he and Marie asked that their last names not be used in this article. About half of the country's migrant farm workers are undocumented. Marie and four of their children are US citizens.

Children of migrant farm workers like Christina, Jorge, Raul, Mickaela, and Juana occupy a shadowy place in the education landscape. As they slip between schools and states their progress - and setbacks - are extremely difficult to gauge.

"Migrant kids are often the forgotten kids," says Roger Rosenthal, executive director of the Migrant Legal Action Program in Washington, D.C., who for more than 25 years has worked as an advocate for migrant children.

They have been called an "invisible minority." Hard to identify, obscured within another struggling yet more prominent demographic - impoverished Latinos - migrant students face the same obstacles as other low-income minority children. According to the Labor Department's National Agricultural Workers Survey, their families earn less than $10,000 a year. On average, farm workers have six years of formal education. Most don't speak English.

But migrants must also grapple with farm injuries and pesticide exposure; juggle school work with field work; and learn to navigate a world that is constantly in motion. With each interruption to their schooling, they risk falling behind. Just one move can increase the likelihood that a student will drop out or repeat a grade, studies show.

In his 1960 documentary "Harvest of Shame," chronicling the plight of migrant workers, Edward R. Murrow suggested that the US government was better at counting migratory birds than migrant farm workers. It's an aphorism that applies to migrant students as well. Data on everything from their numbers to dropout and graduation rates are often rough, or culled from antiquated research.

"They're a subpopulation that really isn't studied because they're a marginalized population," says Roberto Treviño, a professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, whose research focuses on achievement in low-income Latino students. "They're off on the fringes."

With states now required by federal law to track and report how historically ignored groups of students - including migrants - fare in such areas as reading and math, this is sure to change. But will it also translate to a fuller education for America's nearly 900,000 migrant students? While schools may be taking more note of the migrants in their midst, the same laws that require better tracking urge tougher academic standards - without necessarily creating additional support for a vulnerable group already struggling to keep up.

It's a sunny day in Grandview, crisp and pleasant. Bright wooden cutouts of fruit lining the main drag hint at just how entwined this town's identity is with agriculture. A faint smell of manure wafts through the streets.

In the fall, Marie and Armando's five children were spread between three schools. Grandview has six schools serving about 3,000 students, 550 of whom are migrant.

By many measures, they are adjusting well. Christina's transition into ninth grade has been smooth. In a room redolent of melting butter, her home economics teacher notes that the entire freshman class is, after all, new to Grandview High School. Besides, the faculty and students are familiar with families cycling in and out.

Jorge - the family "inventor" - is thriving in sixth-grade science. On this Tuesday, he's the first to connect a battery, compass, and light bulb to test electromagnetic strength.

Raul's second-grade teacher feels comfortable seating him at the back of the room. He's "a strong student," she says, able to concentrate through rows of distractions.

At recess, Mickaela twirls a jump-rope as a gaggle of second-grade girls, ponytails flying, runs through.

And Juana, liquid eyes framed by wispy strands of dark hair escaped from her braid, shyly professes to love homework. She blends easily with her classmates at Smith Elementary, where fair-haired children are in the minority. In her dual-language first-grade class - the morning is conducted in English, the afternoon in Spanish - one blond boy sticks out in a sea of dark heads.

But there's a murkier side, too.

Becky Knott, her teacher, says that Juana rarely takes assignments home, and they don't always make it back. During her 15 years in Grandview, Mrs. Knott has seen countless migrant students filter through, many of whom, even at that young age, "come in low because they haven't been in one place long enough to learn anything." But with a supportive family and school, she says, they often "just zoom - they excel."

Mickaela and Raul are pulled out of class daily for ESL lessons.

And at 8:40 every morning, Jorge joins a reading class for special-education students. Though he is clearly at the top of his class, impatient as his classmates struggle to sound out words - rugs, pop, stop, swimming - whispering answers to Sergio on his right, he reads at a first-grade level.

Twenty-four percent of the district's migrant students are a year behind grade level; 2 percent are two or more years behind, according to the state's Migrant Student Data and Recruitment Office. The 44,000 migrant students statewide are performing at about the same level.

Forty years have passed since the federal government, as part of President Johnson's Great Society program, promised to educate all children. The Migrant Education Program was created in 1966, at a time when just 1 in 10 migrant students finished high school. In the '80s, graduation rates reached about 50 percent - still one of the lowest for any group - where they hover today. President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002, reauthorizing Johnson's education law and reaffirming a commitment to all students, with a special pledge to poor and minority families.

And in places with year-round growing seasons, where rows of crops have long abutted school buildings, many districts are successfully addressing migrant students' needs. Even tiny Montana, with just 1,600 migrants, is held up as an example. But in other states, where their presence may be newer, or where fewer trickle through each year, many migrant students linger in the shadows.

Educators say that the goal of NCLB, to shine a light on subgroups such as "migrant" by scrutinizing their progress and holding districts and states accountable for their performance, is laudable. But, as with the law more broadly, it's the implementation that has drawn concern.

For one, as the migrant student population has grown over the past decade and costly computer technology has proven one of the most effective ways to support them, federal funding rose modestly - and actually decreased slightly to $393 million in 2004. "You have more kids and you're getting whacked by the inflation rate," says Richard Gómez Jr., president of the National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education and director of Washington's Migrant Education Program, which saw its migrant students increase by 10 percent.

Another fear is what a battery of high-stakes assessments, with more states requiring graduation exit exams, may do to an already fragile group of students. And for the roughly 50 percent who graduate, there's the looming question of how to pay for college. The cost can be prohibitive on a family's subsistence wages, and those who are not citizens might not qualify for loans or state tuition.

But the biggest challenge in serving migrant students has been keeping track of them. The federal Migrant Student Records Transfer System, founded in 1969, was considered a great achievement. Besides housing health and education records, it was credited with bigger feats, like ending measles outbreaks in migrant camps. In 1994, the system was abandoned and replaced by a web of state-run programs. Now, the Education Department is looking into ways to help states link their systems, and plans to have the Migrant Student Information Exchange in place within the next few years. But it may never be as wide-reaching as a centralized federal database.

Grandview became the state's first migrant education program in 1962. Today, Yolanda Magañas, the district's migrant-home visitor, serves more than 500 families. It was she who discovered Marie's family living in an abandoned camper, cooking and bathing at a nearby labor camp. The three-bedroom single-wide, set in the Granvilla Mobile Court, where Marie's family now lives, is an immeasurable improvement.

"We have a house," says Christina. "Like a 'house,' house. There's nothing missing for us here." At dusk, Armando, in cowboy boots and a baseball cap embroidered with the Virgin of Guadalupe, ducks outside to switch on a row of twinkly blue Christmas lights.

Ms. Magañas helped them find their new home and registered the children in the Migrant Education Program. Warm, with well-coiffed dark hair, she's lived in the Yakima Valley most of her life. Her parents were migrants from Texas.

Much of the credit for improving migrant students' lives belongs to people like Magañas, advocates and educators - many once migrants themselves - who truly grasp their needs. But beyond understanding the struggle and the stigma of farm work, beyond acting as translators between families and schools, they recognize the dignity and lessons of the migrant experience.

"These are powerful people," says Cinthia Salinas, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and editor of "Scholars in the Field: The Challenges of Migrant Education." "They coalesce around their family and their language. They take great pride in what they do."

Marie's family arrived in Grandview to orchards thick with fruit. For the few months before school started, the children climbed apple and pear trees to help their father. Though they grew tired and their hands cold, Raul and Jorge say it was fun - an adventure like their drive from Mexico.

But work dried up mid-December. For Armando this meant a sojourn in Nevada. Marie, resolute in her decision to stay, remained behind with their children.

Kevin Chase, superintendent of the Grandview School District, has witnessed 30 years of change in the Yakima Valley. There was a time when schools hired as many as five extra teachers to meet the spring influx of migrants - so many students, he says, they practically had their own school. Classes started as late as 10 a.m. - "asparagus time" - to accommodate farm work. Today there is less turnover each year, as families hoping for a steadier life for their children try to eke out a living here year round.

Like parents everywhere, Armando dreams of more for Christina, Jorge, Raul, Mickaela, and Juana. He wants them to finish high school, a luxury he never had. And one day, he says in Spanish, "I hope they have careers and are able to do better than I have, working in the fields."

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