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Near dawn, the sprinklers rotate and spit methodically. Droplets of water arc and fall onto endless rows of strawberries that will either live or die over the next few days, depending on the weather.

A single frost at the start of Florida's strawberry season can destroy a harvest that should last well into spring. And the sprinklers are for farmers a lone safeguard. If the temperature stays above freezing, the drizzle serves to wash damaging frost off the delicate leaves. Below freezing, the water turns to ice and insulates the plants against colder temperatures.

All the news stations that carry into this agricultural town 23 miles east of Tampa are talking about it. Will it frost or won't it? Will the damage equal that of '89? Or will the crop survive?

Despite all the hoopla and the fact that her livelihood depends on it, Francisca Ibarra, a mother of four, is cool: Such is the fickle nature of migrant life.

Dependent on unpredictables, on nature and where it will take her and her family for another day's work, Ibarra knows all too well that the only thing tomorrow promises is uncertainty. Some days, she works from dawn until dusk. Others, not at all. Some weeks, she and her husband can pull in $600. Others, they might have to eke by on $30.

As the pickle and cucumber seasons wind down in October, her children attend school in Ohio. Then one day, their bags are packed and they're off. Suddenly, they're the new kids in a strange classroom with strange faces, 1,200 miles away.

Except for 6-year-old Jos‚ Angel, Ibarra's second child. His teachers at La Escuela de San Jos‚ also packed their bags last fall, leaving behind the robust pumpkin patches of Ohio for Plant City, the strawberry capital of Florida.

Vulnerable Life Style

As the first mobile school for migrant children, La Escuela de San Jos‚ has been a shoestring operation since it opened last September. Nonetheless, it's one that offers stability to the 16 kindergartners and 1st graders who will attend the Roman Catholic school for the next three years.

The students, all of whom are Mexican or Mexican-American, are the children of farmworkers who share a similar migratory route. From late August until early October, the children attend La Escuela de San Jos‚ in a borrowed classroom of St. Joseph Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio. Then, as winter approaches and another planting season beckons, the students--and the school's six full-time staff members--gather their belongings and head south to resume their studies at an underused Catholic education center in Plant City.

Ibarra, who together with her husband was recently able to buy a modest home here, says Jos‚ and her other children look forward to their travels. In Ohio, they enjoy frequent visits to their grandmother's house. While in Florida, they appreciate the luxury of their own home. Her oldest child, Junior, is successful in public school.

But the frequent comings and goings ultimately take a toll on most children of migrant farmworkers. Many have to take on the responsibility of caring for younger siblings and pass their free time working in the fields. Typically, they see few choices for the future, become academically overwhelmed, suffer from low self-esteem, and begin to drop out as early as the 3rd grade, studies suggest.

According to a 1986 report, such children have the lowest graduation rate of any identified population in the public school system, estimated between 10 percent and 20 percent. Combined with health conditions that, according to research, resemble those in Third World countries and contribute to an average lifespan of just 49 years, the prospects for many of these children are limited.

More often than not, parents say, public schools exacerbate an already vulnerable life style. "Lots of times they don't even want to register migrant children," says Margie Arevalo, whose daughter, Isabel, attends the San Jos‚ school. "They think you are a waste of their time."

Generous Donations

No one could lodge the same complaint about the San Jos‚ team members. Behind the scenes, they're shuffling chores and juggling vehicles to customize a smooth day for the school's young students, who are spread out all over the county. "Every day is different," the school's staff members cheerfully agree.

This morning, at 6:35, it is the school's coordinator, Sister Gaye Moorhead, behind the wheel of a noisy yellow school bus as it cuts through a thick fog and pulls up to a small white trailer with two silhouettes waiting in the doorway. In an instant, the tinier figure is marching toward the rear of the bus that will make seven more stops over the course of an hour before it fills up.

By 7:50, both the bus and a van carrying an equal load are parked in the driveway of the St. Clement Education Center. The St. Clement Parish lent a handful of rooms in the U-shaped, white stucco building framed by arched walkways to the San Jos‚ team.

Two of its classrooms, a kitchen, and a common room are just a few of the donations that support the school. In fact, the venture is much the product of a generous Catholic community. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, a coalition of more than 7,000 nuns to which four of the San Jos‚ staff belong, serves as the project's primary benefactor.

St. Joseph Elementary School back in Fremont forgoes the San Jos‚ students' tuition, even though they are incorporated into many of the school's regular activities. To house the staff members while in Ohio, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo pitched in a vacant convent. And a pharmacist in Lakeland, Fla., actually moved out of his own home and volunteered it--rent-free--to the sisters, who are now somewhat migrants themselves.

"It's called on us to live more simply," Sister Gaye says of their new life style. "There are some days I feel like I'm living out of a suitcase, but I think, wow, these families, they live with what they can travel with in their car, which often includes the full family. And they come and have to find housing, and so, we've got it very easy here."

Logistical Details

Private foundations, other religious groups, and federal funds also help sustain the program that a couple of VISTA volunteers envisioned nearly three decades ago. In 1968, Sister Gaye and the school's lay nurse practitioner, Jane Kallous, ran a day-care center for the children of migrant potato farmers in Perkinsville, N.Y. During the school day, a retired kindergarten teacher taught the children, who ranged from infants to teenagers, in one classroom.

Sister Gaye admits that the educational opportunities for migrant children have improved since then. "But they're all supplemental summer programs or pull-out programs," she says. "I thought at the time, wouldn't it be great to have a mobile school for migrant children."

In September 1993, "it became an idea whose time had come," adds Sister Gaye, a child-welfare lawyer. But turning the idea into a reality has been a logistical challenge.

The effort began with the Sisters of Mercy making the necessary connections, seeking out willing personnel, and researching somewhat predictable migratory streams. Once they'd chosen the Fremont-Plant City route, the sisters began recruiting students, stopping by trailer camps and talking to children and their parents. One week before school started, the team had registered 24 children. But five were lost to Michigan's apple crop. So on the first day of school, only 19 showed up.

For about a month, two San Jos‚ teachers, Sister Patricia Kelly and Sister Patricia Lamb, welcomed their new students into their St. Joseph Elementary classroom. At the same time, the school absorbed the youngsters into many of their activities, such as music, physical education, religion, field trips, and lunch. "We didn't want them to be an add-on," says Sister Christine Marie Foos, the principal of St. Joseph Elementary, a pre-K-8 school that enrolls about 350 students.

Within weeks, however, the migrant families were on the move. The team showed the Florida-bound parents a picture of the St. Clement Education Center and gave them pre-addressed, stamped envelopes to send when they got settled in Plant City.

As the first families hit the road, so did Sister Gaye and Sister Pat Kelly. Sister Pat Lamb and outreach worker Sister Nancy Donovan stayed behind until the last family had left Ohio.

During this time, staff members were still working out the complicated details of interstate bus protocol: funding it, getting it, finding a driver, and adapting the vehicle to two states with seemingly contradictory regulations over such things as sequential warning lights, strobe lights, painted rooftops, and first-aid kits.

Stable Environment

All these hassles have escaped the notice of the 16 youngsters seated at miniature tables spooning chili, chomping on carrots, and chatting in a mixture of Spanish and English at the midpoint of a regulated, smooth school day.

Although the San Jos‚ students live in Florida for the better part of the school year, they bring the St. Joseph Elementary curriculum with them from Ohio. "It's not necessarily that they'll have the same teachers for three years, as that's not true of any kids anywhere," says Sister Gaye. "But they will have the same setting, the same materials that they would have in a normal curriculum, and the same faces, whether we change roles or not--and consistency, we hope, with bus discipline, lunch-room procedures, that kind of thing."

A central part of the school's mission is to integrate Mexican culture into the curriculum and expose students to Mexican and Mexican-American role models. So staff members who aren't already bilingual are taking Spanish lessons.

The school's staff also provides one-on-one tutoring, medical services, and family support. Sister Pat Lamb takes students aside who might otherwise slip through the cracks. Nurse Kallous tries to keep students healthy, make sure they get immunized, and tap resources for medical care if sources like Medicaid fall through. As the school's pastoral outreach worker, Sister Nancy takes the students and their older siblings on outings, coordinates special events for families, and hopes to organize a program to help parents earn their high school diplomas.

The news in the morning papers is good: Florida's strawberries have evaded the frost that threatened to kill the $100 million-a-year industry. The sprinklers have accomplished their mission, and workers like Francisca Ibarra and her husband will likely continue a daily regimen that takes them plant by plant, from one row to the next--at least until spring.

If La Escuela de San Jos‚ does the same, administrators hope the stability the school offers will be longer lasting.

The students won't be formally assessed on their progress until the end of the project's three years, but many parents say they're already seeing a marked increase in their youngsters' enthusiasm for school. If the sisters can secure the funding--and the outreach effort continues to meet with the same success as this year's strawberry crop--the San Jos‚ team hopes to pick up another round of participants in 1997.

"I guess the goal is to present a choice," Sister Nancy muses. Migrant farming is "honest, hard work. But it's back-breaking, monotonous, and routine. And I don't think a 14-year-old girl, for instance, who drops out of school in the 7th grade, has much of a choice about whether to live this life style or not."

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