Migrants Found to Need More Help

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Washington--The federal government's Migrant Education Program could do more to find, as well as to help, the children of migratory workers, according to a series of studies sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.

But such an effort, warn researchers at the Research Triangle Institute of North Carolina, would require a national effort, and would therefore shift the program's focus away from the delivery of services by state and local school agencies. The research institute conducted the studies over a five-year period under a $3.7-million contract with the Education Department.

Although the government's migrant-education effort currently involves 550,000 students in 47 states at a cost of $266 million, the research group suggests that many migrant children remain beyond its reach. The researchers say that a more intensive national effort is needed to identify and help such students, whose academic achievement in elementary school is nearly one grade behind the general population and who fall further behind as they grow older.

Education Department officials3and people working in the field say they are not surprised by the problems cited in the report, completed last spring and released here last week. And they acknowledge there are conflicting goals for the Migrant Education program, which was established in 1967 by Congress as part of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to enable states and local districts to meet the special needs of this shifting population of students.

"This report asks: Who should this program be serving?" said Gerald P. Burns, project officer for the Education Department. "And what should it accomplish?"

"Serving the enrolled migrant is seen by most districts as their primary duty," said Mr. Burns. "Recruiting and finding more students to participate in the program is seen as a secondary duty."

"It's a mind-boggling problem," admitted Vidal A. Rivera Jr., acting director of the department's Office of Migrant Education. "The implications are far greater than the effects on the children of agricultural workers and fishermen. The real question is: How equipped is our system of education to deal with problems of mobile populations?

"We need a national approach and policy to deal with the problem of mobility."

The report divides migrant students into three basic categories: those enrolled in a school district with a federally funded program, those identified at some point by the computerized Migrant Student Record Transfer System but not currently enrolled in school, and those who have never been identified as migrants.

But while the computerized record system, headquartered in Little Rock, Ark., has helped officials identify and instruct the migrant student population, it cannot hurdle two major stumbling blocks to the delivery of educational services to such students.

First, officials say, a sizable segment of the population has not yet been identified. And second, about 38 percent of migrant students identified once fail to re-enter a migrant-education program, according to the Education Department's report.

The report recommends greater cooperation among officials directing local and state migrant-education programs, more extensive use of the Migrant Student Record Transfer System, and additional resources to identify the children not
now enrolled in school.

The report chastises state and local officials for not being more aggressive in locating, and helping, this large group of what it calls "national students."

But if school districts hired people to scour the nation's orchards and farms to find the students, education officials point out, they would be forced, because of limited funds, to drain money from the academic and related services that federal regulations say are the main object of the program.

A Typical District

Included in the researchers' studies was the 16,000-student McAllen, Tex., school district. Located 10 miles from the Mexican border, McAllen has received $1.5 million this year to serve 3,300 migrant students at 10 elementary, four junior highs, and two high schools.

McAllen, with three schools in which migrants are a majority, op3erated a separate school for migrant students until the federal program began in 1967. The students are now doing very well in their neighborhood schools with the help of aides and special teachers, according to Olivia Acevedo, the Title I migrant education coordinator. But, she said, attendance is a major problem in planning a comprehensive educational program for each student.

"We get students sporadically throughout the year," Mrs. Acevedo explained. "Many of them are repeaters--coming back each year at the same time, depending on the crop being harvested. But we get a lot of new ones, too, and we get some who stay for awhile and then move suddenly, without warning."

The pattern of attendance among migrant students is also a major concern of the report. It found that 46 percent of students who were tested had enrolled in only one school district during a 12-month period; those students are known as6

"former migrants."

Disagreement on Figures

But Mrs. Acevedo and others question the validity of the report's conclusion, that this large percentage indicates the schools are not do-ing enough to find the "truly migrant."

"About 2,000 (roughly 60 percent) of our [migrant] students are classified as current migrants," she said, using a term that education officials apply to students who have entered a school after the traditional September opening date. "The rest are former migrants. But a lot of those former migrants may move next year, and become current migrants in another school district."

Mr. Rivera, while agreeing that a greater effort is needed, argues that any change should not affect what is already being done.

"It's crucial that we not abandon the effort. If we're not out there helping, who else is going to do it?"

Vol. 01, Issue 08

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