End Of The Road

By Lynn Schnaiberg — March 01, 2001 8 min read
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Each year, many migrant farm-worker families travel the same route, leaving the cucumber and tomato fields around Fremont, Ohio, for the strawberry fields around Plant City, Florida, in late fall—then traveling 1,200 miles back to Fremont for the summer and early fall. While the transience affords parents the chance to eke out a living, it takes a toll on the children, who often feel like perpetual outsiders and fall behind in school. The prospects for children’s success are not made any brighter by the grinding poverty and substandard health conditions many of their families endure.

In August 1994, Sister Gaye Moorhead and a small cadre of dedicated teachers opened the doors to La Escuela de San Jose, the nation’s first mobile school for the children of migrant farm workers. San Jose seemed a solution that was brilliant in its simplicity: Establish a school that would come along for the ride and, thus, remove the obstacles to learning inherent in a migratory lifestyle. The children’s teachers, classmates, curriculum—even their uniforms and school bus—would stay the same whether they were in Ohio or Florida.

And the K-3 school has worked wonders with students like 12-year-old Juan Bueno and his younger brother Matias, according to their mother Alicia, a second-generation migrant farm worker. Alicia says Juan is doing better at the public school he now attends than his three older siblings, who didn’t have the benefit of the traveling school. As for Matias, a 3rd grader at San Jose, “they all know him,” Alicia explains in her native Spanish. “Wherever we go, it’s the same teachers. And it makes a difference to him and to us.” But Alicia won’t be sending her four-year-old, Cassandra, to kindergarten at the school next year.

That’s because, after seven years, the school will pack up for good when classes end on May 31.

For the most part, the school year at La Escuela de San Jose follows a well-worn path: School begins in Ohio, where San Jose’s small staff—made up of nuns as well as lay people—teaches children in donated classroom space at St. Joseph Elementary in Fremont. When families head south for the next harvest, classes continue in an underused facility at St. Clement parish in Plant City. Over the summer in Ohio, staff members often tutor individual students.

“It’s like a family” at the school, observes Alicia Bueno. Several of the school’s eight staff members routinely make home visits, tutor children outside school hours, and mentor their former students. They help families navigate bureaucracies and offer rides to doctors appointments and other services necessary for keeping kids healthy and in school. And San Jose has put out the welcome mat by hiring staff members who speak Spanish or are working toward becoming bilingual.

The Catholic school has tripled in size since Sister Moorhead, a child-welfare lawyer and member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, a coalition of 7,000- plus nuns, first visited the 30-odd migrant camps around Fremont to recruit students. Sister Moorhead, the school’s co-ordinator, and her staff started their first school year with 19 kindergartners and 1st graders, all of them Mexican or Mexican American, most of them from homes where only Spanish was spoken.

Ann Cranston-Gingras, director of the Center for Migrant Education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has spent the past few years tracking about 20 former San Jose students to see how they fare in Florida public schools in the 4th and 5th grades. Her research shows that these kids contradict the conventional wisdom about migrant students: They have excellent attendance, achieve at or above grade level in most subjects, and are deemed socially well-adjusted by teachers. Their parents are involved in school and repeatedly say their children’s education is top priority. In contrast, more than a third of migrant students across the nation are at least one grade level behind academically. Many feel socially isolated and wind up dropping out of school; some researchers estimate the migrant drop-out rate to be as high as 90 percent.

Cranston-Gingras attributes San Jose kids’ educational success to the much- needed continuity that the school provided early on. In addition, she says, its small classrooms allow for plenty of attention to students’ individual needs and help make school a safe and welcoming place. San Jose’s staff “really embraced the culture of the children,” Cranston-Gingras says.

But the school’s logistical challenges have made it too difficult to keep the school rolling along, explains Sister Moorhead. From the beginning, San Jose has run on a shoestring budget, cobbled together from grants and donations, with the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas as its primary benefactor. And in recent years, migration patterns have changed enough to affect the school.

First, in the late 1990s, a large tomato processing plant in Ohio stopped using locally grown tomatoes, meaning much of the available picking work around Fremont now focuses on the cucumber harvest, which usually ends in mid-August. Consequently, fewer families stay up north throughout the fall. Also, as a result of federal welfare reform legislation in 1996, many migrants say benefits have become harder to obtain in Ohio than in Florida. Increasingly, families are staying in the Sunshine State and looking for temporary work to fill the gap between picking seasons there. It’s also becoming more common for only the father of the family to travel to Ohio, leaving the rest of the family rooted in Florida. Of the school’s 54 students this year, only 19 started the school year in Ohio. Administrators have attempted to deal with this trend by coordinating classrooms in Ohio and Florida simultaneously, taxing the school’s already thin resources.

San Jose’s greatest challenge, however, has been the arduous task of finding and retaining teachers who are willing to become migratory themselves. Among other things, teachers face the challenge of finding a place to live in two different states. To ease this burden, the school has attempted to set up options for them. In Florida, they can live rent-free in donated housing; in Ohio, they’ve stayed in a succession of rented living quarters around St. Joseph Elementary and, one year, boarded for free at a convent. But housing help has not been enough of a sweetener to convince staff to stick around. Most teachers have stayed for only a year or so before moving on. For four years out of seven, the school has operated without a full faculty.

“We’d advertise [jobs] nationwide and might get one call. And that’s even before they found out about the salary,” Sister Moorhead says. “Attracting folks who are able or willing to be mobile is a challenge. We know this is much more than a job; it’s a lifestyle.”

Ironically, says Cranston-Gingras, the very traits that make San Jose so successful—the intense dedication, carrying on classes in two states to provide continuity, the one-on-one attention, the family outreach—are the same traits that make the school so hard to sustain. “You have people who have basically dedicated their lives to providing services for these kids and their families. And it’s very tough to find people willing to travel between two states to do this,” she says.

It’s so tough that newer programs with more stable funding that are attempting to provide continuity for migrant students aren’t even trying it. Instead, they’re turning to technology to keep kids connected. For example, while the Anchor School, a Collier County, Florida-based project operated by the nonprofit group Serve Inc., assembles teams of AmeriCorps workers, certified teachers, and other volunteers to travel with and tutor migrant students each summer, during the academic year, the project uses laptop computers to help kids settle into different schools. Anchor provides students with free e-mail accounts so they can contact teachers in their former and future schools and helps them put portfolios of their work onto compact discs so they can show new teachers what they’ve done.

Other programs are seeking to improve migrant students’ academic performance by offering them remedial, supplementary, and alternate courses online. The federally funded Kentucky Migrant Technology Project, which has placed a complete middle and high school curriculum aligned to state standards on the Web, provides migrant students with personal digital assistants so they can access courses on the go. The Pennsylvania Department of Education is considering expanding a year-old pilot program that currently offers instruction to students from about 50 migrant families through Web TV. “We’re having real success with the technology stuff,” says Paula Errigo Stoup, the program development co-ordinator for the department’s migrant education division. “This can be the teacher that travels with them.”

La Escuela de San Jose is a rare specimen, and deciding this past fall to close the school at the end of the year was difficult, Sister Moorhead says. “It just came to, what do we have to do to keep making this work? We’ve reached a point where it’s hard to just continue it,” she says. “It’s the cumulative effect of just stretching and trying to cover all bases and thinking, If it’s like this for us, and we have a great, dedicated staff, whoever else can do this?”

The staff hopes the pain of the mobile school’s closure will be eased by the opening of a more traditional school. When officials at St. Clement Catholic Church, the local parish that lends space to La Escuela de San Jose in Plant City, heard that the school would be closing, it decided to speed up its own plans to open a parish school. The church’s K-3 school is slated to debut this August, and officials hope to hire San Jose faculty members, enroll the current students tuition-free, and continue to recruit new migrant students in subsequent years. “We’re working very hard to continue the kinds of things they were doing,” says St. Clement Deacon Richard Beaudry.

Although La Escuela de San Jose taught fewer than 100 children over the years, Cranston-Gingras believes the school will leave a powerful legacy. For one, she says, it’s shown that given the right tools, migrant children and their families can tap into their own resilience to defy the statistics of failure. And, she says: “I think the children themselves will be the legacy. A lot of these children have gotten a foundation that will propel them onto a different path than they would have followed otherwise. Those families have been transformed in their values and beliefs about school and schooling. Those effects don’t disappear-they continue in generations to come.”


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