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Published in Print: February 8, 2006, as Border Crossings

Border Crossings

A handful of California districts hire teachers in Mexico to tutor migrant students during the pupils' extended winter breaks in the land of their heritage.

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Third grader Gaby Martinez might be on vacation in this remote Mexican hamlet, 2,000 miles from her California home, but that doesn’t mean a teacher can’t find her. “Ya hiciste la tarea?” calls a firm voice from a car that slows to a stop alongside a bumpy, stone road near Gaby’s grandmother’s home. “Did you finish your homework?”

Pedro Pahuamba helps Cynthia Jimenez with language arts homework from her independent-study packet, while visiting La Nopalera, Mexico. The 3rd grader was slated to be absent 11 days from Kelseyville Elementary School in Northern  California.
Pedro Pahuamba helps Cynthia Jimenez with language arts homework from her independent-study packet, while visiting La Nopalera, Mexico. The 3rd grader was slated to be absent 11 days from Kelseyville Elementary School in Northern California.
—Linda Lutton for Education Week

The voice is that of Pedro Pahuamba, better known to Gaby and a dozen other children here on Christmas break as el maestro—the teacher.

Mr. Pahuamba is one of four Mexican teachers hired by a California migrant education office to keep students focused on their U.S. schoolwork while their families spend extended holiday stays in Mexico. From Nov. 15 to Feb. 15, Mr. Pahuamba covers a 300-square-mile area, searching out children from a handful of participating districts in Northern California.

Once he finds them, it’s class time—no matter that it’s New Year’s Eve day or that schools are out on the entire continent. Mr. Pahuamba’s goal is to help students finish the independent-study packets they were given by teachers in California—in hopes of easing their transition back to class at the end of their lengthy vacations.

Dubbed the Binational Support Teacher Project, the apparently unique arrangement is one of the more creative solutions to an issue schools across the United States face—that of immigrant students, particularly those from Mexico, missing weeks of school around the Christmas holidays.

“We tell families, ‘The best place for your child is in class, in school. But if you can’t be here, we’re there to support you,’ ” said Maria Arvizu-Espinoza, who coordinates the project stateside for the Region 2 migrant education office in California. “Eventually, these kids are going to come back to California and graduate from California schools. We want to make the transition back as smooth as possible.”

Money is also at stake: Districts can claim average-daily-attendance dollars from the state if the students successfully complete the homework they’re given, essentially counting them as “present” even though they’re thousands of miles away.


In Mexico, December and January are packed with fiestas: from the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, to nine days of posadas—the celebrations leading up toChristmas—to town fiestas scheduled to accommodate returning migrants. Families plan weddings and baptisms for that time, knowing they’ll be joined by relatives from el norte.

In the area surrounding La Nopalera, U.S. license plates can outnumber those from the state of Michoacán, where the town is located, during the holidays. Mexican officials were expecting the return of 1.2 million expatriates this winter.

Mr. Pahuama’s first student showed up toward the end of November. In late January, he was still tutoring three. In all, he assisted 72 students this year, his third in the project.

Two days before the new year, surrounded by flowering plants and seated at a metal table on Gaby’s grandmother’s patio, Gaby’s 5th grade sister works on determining fact from opinion. “I need help,” she tells Mr. Pahuamba in English.

Back and Forth

Numerous migrant students from districts in California's Region 2 travel south over the winter holidays to Mexico. When they return after as much as a three-month absence, the children often have fallen behind in their schoolwork. Easing the transition is the Binational Support Teacher Project, run in several cities and villages in the state of Michoacán.

*Click image to enlarge

The binational-support teachers must be bilingual, have experience working in U.S. schools, and be familiar with the migrant lifestyle.

“There was nothing like this here two years ago when we came to Mexico, and my daughter fell behind after we returned,” Angelica Martinez, Gaby’s mother, said in Spanish. “If the teacher wasn’t here, it would be up to my three daughters to understand all this on their own.”

Under Mr. Pahuamba’s watch, Gaby’s 8th grade cousin pages through a textbook on U.S. government and fills in worksheets. A 3rd grade neighbor works subtraction problems. The neighbor’s sister, Ana Rosa, is reading about Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and has also brought along Advanced Placement literature and precalculus homework.

Ana Rosa’s homework is so complex that Mr. Pahuamba asks the senior to lend him her math textbook—so he can study it before helping her. On occasion, Mr. Pahuamba brings his brother, an electrical engineer, to help students in advanced math and science.

Supporters of the project say that having the binational-support teacher in Mexico underscores the importance of schoolwork and, paradoxically, of attending school. In addition to providing academic help, Mr. Pahuamba considers it part of his job to offer frequent admonitions to parents.

“Remember, the maximum number of days you want to miss is three,” he tells one mother whose son is out of school for a month.

“If you would have sent him to the homework session yesterday, he would be done with the packet now,” he tells another mother at nearly 8 o’clock one evening, after spending two hours on fractions and decimals with her son.


Stapled to the top of most students’ homework packets is an independent-study contract, signed by the student, a parent, and school officials.

“This is an alternative educational option in which no student shall be forced to participate,” the contract states in Spanish.

When students return home, teachers award either full credit for the number of days agreed to in the contract, partial credit, or none, depending on the work completed.

The opportunity to earn credit is especially critical at the secondary school level, when, Ms. Arvizu-Espinoza says, students were dropping out because they saw no chance of passing the marking period in which they’d been gone because of attendance requirements.

The project, now in its sixth year, also keeps schools’ attendance rates from plummeting—a factor scrutinized under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And Ms. Arvizu-Espinoza calculates that for each day a student is given independent-study credit, a participating school district can claim about $30 in average-daily-attendance money.

California’s Region 2 migrant education office, based in Yuba City, signs an annual contract with the state education department in Michoacán, where a majority of the region’s 35,000 migrant students have roots, according to Ms. Arvizu-Espinoza.

Fast Facts: Binational Support Teacher Project

• The project is in its sixth year.

• Students often travel with their families from their California homes in November or December for economic reasons or to spend time with relatives.

• The U.S. government finances a migrant education program in all 50 states. California’s is the largest; one out of every three migrant students in the United States lives in California.

• Michoacán education officials interview and hire teachers, who receive a $2,700 stipend and a $1,000 mileage allowance paid by Callifornia’s Region 2 migrant education office.

• Pedro Pahuamba is one of four Mexican teachers hired by Region 2 this year. From November to February, he assisted 72 students in a 300-square-mile area.

• When students return home, teachers award credit based on the amount of work completed in the children’s independent-study packets.

Michoacán education officials interview and hire teachers. Region 2, which covers most of Northern California, pays a $2,700 stipend and a $1,000 mileage allowance for each teacher. This winter, the region paid for three teacher positions (filled by four teachers), at a cost of $11,100. The teachers helped 195 students.

Before the program begins, Region 2 flies the binational-support teachers to California to meet parents, students, and teachers.

Districts pay nothing, but must have in place or be willing to start an independent-study program. They must also have a critical mass of migrant students, said Ms. Arvizu-Espinoza.

The independent-study packets can be a lot of extra work for teachers, testifies Chad Hill, who teaches a combined 2nd and 3rd grade class at Kelseyville Elementary School, about 120 miles north of San Francisco. This year, six of his 20 students were gone for extended stays, ranging from one to four weeks.

The strategy is not a substitute for being in class. “There’s definitely a delay in trying to catch back up to speed again on what we’ve been covering,” said Mr. Hill, even among those students who meet with a binational teacher. Still, he considers the project “the best strategy we’ve come up with to fill in the gap until they return.”

Districts have tried other tactics. In the Napa Valley Unified School District, school officials piloted a three-week Christmas break this year, instead of the typical two, and publicized the change well ahead of time. In prior years, the district took part in the binational-support-teacher project.

“We believe the most important place for a student to be is in school,” said Charlotte Ford-Gray, Napa Valley’s coordinator of English-learner services. Officials there are still calculating the new calendar’s effect on absences.

Most districts simply drop students after a certain number of consecutive absences. The Yuba City Unified School District’s enrollment dropped by nearly 1 percent—more than 110 students—between November and January this year, primarily as a result of extended family visits to Mexico and India. School officials say the decline was an improvement over previous years and credit parent education.


In a dusty town adjacent to La Nopalera, Elvira and Aurelio Ramirez praise the binational-support project. They brought with them two grandchildren and a nephew, ages 6, 11, and 13—all visiting Mexico for the first time.

“Now, we don’t have to wait until school is out. We know you are here to help the children,” Ms. Ramirez tells Mr. Pahuamba.

Comments like that highlight a question that has been debated among educators: whether the policy encourages students to miss school.

Leonardo Martinez studies in La Nopalera, Mexico, during winter break. A handful of California districts hire teachers in Mexico to tutor their students while visiting family across the border.
Leonardo Martinez studies in La Nopalera, Mexico, during winter break. A handful of California districts hire teachers in Mexico to tutor their students while visiting family across the border.
—Linda Lutton for Education Week

To Mr. Pahuamba, the December return to Mexico is impossible to stop. Many other educators concur.

Frank Contreras, the director of the Center for Migrant Education at Texas State University-San Marcos, considers the holiday treks “a reality.” He applauds Region 2’s outside-the-box approach.

“To be able to help these students, we have to go beyond the traditional way that things are handled,” he said. “We can’t just wait till they come here and then try to deal with the problems.”

Some migrant families may stay for extended periods in Mexico for economic reasons, because the cost of living is less, noted Kevin Eisenberg, the principal of Calistoga Junior/Senior High School.

Located some 75 miles north of San Francisco, his district, Calistoga Joint Unified, awards students a maximum of five days of credit on the independent-study program. It completed an analysis several years ago that concluded that students who were assisted by the binational-support teachers missed fewer days than students who weren’t.

Considering that, Mr. Eisenberg said he would like to see the project expanded to the Mexican state of Jalisco, where many of his students hail from. Thirty-seven students from the secondary school requested independent-study packets this winter (roughly 10 percent of his school population); eight were helped by teachers in Michoacán.

Mr. Eisenberg isn’t the only one with expansion in mind.

Since Region 2 is financed by federal migrant education dollars, only migrant students—defined as those who have moved across school district lines within the past three years as a result of a parent’s itinerant agricultural work—are served by the binational teachers.

In the future, Ms. Arvizu-Espinoza would like to see districts kick in some money so that students who aren’t classified as “migrant” could also be served.

Additional partnerships with other U.S. states or districts would be welcome, according to Laura Bibiana Morán García, who coordinates the Binational Support Teacher Project in Michoacán.

“We consider this a groundbreaking program,” said Ms. García, noting that the states of Guanajuato and Jalisco are now analyzing the project. “With more resources, we could consolidate this into something much larger, with more teachers and a more permanent presence to reach even more children.”

Vol. 25, Issue 22, Pages 27-29

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