Equity & Diversity

An Anchor in a Shifting Stream

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 28, 2007 10 min read
Jorge Santiago, 8, left, waits as Pam Eppinger, a student-support specialist with the migrant education program in Chester County, Pa., chats with Jorge’s mother, Alicia Cruz, above right, holding her son Diego.
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Eight-year-old Jorge Santiago attended school for four weeks this summer to reinforce what he’d learned over the past year. His summer study was part of a federally funded program that offers extra educational help to migrant children year-round.

The rising 3rd grader, whose father is a Mexican immigrant employed by a landscaping company, joined 240 students at Kennett Consolidated School District for classes run by a regional agency that implements the migrant education program in Chester County, Pa.

“The program is good for families that come from other countries, to orient them to the schools,” said Jorge’s mother, Alicia Cruz, speaking in Spanish.

But after this coming winter, Jorge might not participate in after-school activities and summer school because complex eligibility rules for the federal program—now up for reauthorization as part of the No Child Left Behind Act—include provisions that members of his family may not be able to meet.

Eligibility issues—such as what is considered agricultural work and what was a family’s reason for making a move—have dominated national discussions about the program in recent years and are at the center of the debate on its reauthorization.

The program is relatively small as federal programs go—its budget for the current fiscal year was $386.5 million. But its eligibility rules can be daunting. Federal audits in several states found recruiters counting as eligible families who were later determined to be ineligible. The District of Columbia, for example, reported through its own reinterview process that all the children identified as migrants by recruiters were, in fact, ineligible. Maine reported an error rate of 75 percent.

See Also

For more discussion on this topic, read Mary Ann Zehr’s blog, Learning the Language.

Those who run the program in Chester County say the eligibility rules are hard to apply to the people they seek to serve: immigrants from Mexico who have little education, who don’t speak English, and who are distrustful of questions.

The educators have some ideas about how the law could be improved. They’d like the reauthorization to make it easier to determine if families are eligible and to permit more families to participate.

Policy Debate

The U.S. Department of Education proposed new regulations last spring intended to clarify definitions in the law, but advocacy groups have asked the government to hold off on making them final until after the revision of the NCLB law. (“Migrant Education Program Draws Scrutiny,” May 16, 2007.)

Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis, said not everyone is in favor of expanded eligibility. Some policymakers believe that too much of the roughly $1 billion in federal money spent on migrants each year already goes to education. “Some think health or legal services give more bang for the buck,” Mr. Martin said via e-mail.

Definition of Migrant

A child qualifies for services under the federal migrant education program only if he or she meets this definition:

The term ‘migratory child’ means a child who is, or whose parent or spouse is, a migratory agricultural worker, including a migratory dairy worker, or a migratory fisher, and who, in the preceding 36 months, in order to obtain, or accompany such parent or spouse, in order to obtain, temporary or seasonal employment in agricultural or fishing work —
(A) has moved from one school district to another;
(B) in a state that is comprised of a single school district, has moved from one administrative area to another within such district; or
(C) resides in a school district of more than 15,000 square miles, and migrates a distance of 20 miles or more to a temporary residence to engage in a fishing activity.

SOURCE: No Child Left Behind Act

The federal migrant education program was started in 1966 to give supplementary educational help to children who moved frequently across school district and state lines as their parents followed agricultural plantings and harvests.

Through the program, many states provide summer classes for children, after-school activities, and help from “student-support specialists,” who usually are bilingual and who assist migrant families in navigating the school system.

The Education Department doesn’t have data on the ethnicity or race of families served by the program initially, but John D. Perry, the executive director of the Interstate Migrant Education Council, said that early participants mostly were poor black and white families.

Today, the Education Department reports that 89 percent of migrant children are Latino. Other ethnic backgrounds vary. In Philadelphia, 35 miles from Kennett Square, migrant families include Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians who work in food processing or berry picking.

The number of children in the program nationwide peaked at 889,000 in the 2002-03 school year and dropped to 635,700 during the 2005-06 school year, the most recent year for which data are available.

Advocates for migrants contend the decrease is mostly due to government’s increased restrictions on eligibility. Mr. Martin said the decline likely reflects a drop in the number of migrant families in the country, but documenting that is difficult because definitions for “migrant” vary so much between government agencies.

“People thought these programs would be over by the 1970s,” Mr. Martin said. By at least the 1980s, he noted, there were no longer many U.S. citizens crossing state and school district lines for migrant work. As a result, the federal programs that provide education and other services for migrants have become “immigrant-integration programs,” Mr. Martin said.

Federal Migrant Education Program

❑ Created in 1966 as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to address the needs of children of mobile farmworkers.
❑ Provides a wide range of services to address issues arising from students’ mobility and interrupted schooling. Most states offer special programs in the summer.
❑ First programs were carried out in 1967 with an allocation of $9 million for that fiscal year. Program had a budget of $385.5 million for fiscal 2007.
❑ Number of children counted as eligible for the federal program decreased to 685,000 in the 2005-06 school.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education

Probably the most controversial aspect of the way the law has been implemented is that recruiters for the program are required to determine if a family made a move “in order to obtain” work in agriculture or fishing, and not for other reasons.

The National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education, or NASDME, and the Interstate Migrant Education Council recommend that the phrase “in order to obtain” be struck from the law in its reauthorization. Under that proposed change, the law would base eligibility on whether a migrant got a job in agriculture or fishing, not whether the person had planned to get one.

“With the phrasing ‘in order to obtain,’ we have to do an in-depth inquiry about their intention to move—find out what’s inside their head as to why they came in the first place,” said Shawn Cockrum, the president of NASDME. He said the reasons families give for moving often change from the time they are found to be eligible and when they might be reinterviewed by someone auditing the program.

Ambrose J. Finnegan, who directs the educational service agency for Chester County, said “it’s almost like interrogating a family to find that the only reason they moved into the area was for agricultural reasons. They have to say the right terminology or they are not eligible.”

Diverse Workforce

In Chester County, which has half a million people, it’s not easy to identify families taking part in the program that match the common image of migrants: people who move regularly from place to place to follow the planting and harvesting of crops.

Kennett Square calls itself the “mushroom capital” of the United States, and 64 percent of families participating in the federal migrant education program in Chester County include someone who works for mushroom growers or who has sought work with them, according to a survey by the regional education agency that runs the program.

Jobs on mushroom farms meet federal criteria for being temporary—the industry has a slow season every year, and the turnover rate is high—but many who work on the farms settle in the county.

One in four migrant families in Chester County also has a member who works at or has sought work with local nurseries or landscaping companies. Most other migrant families work at area dairy farms, at fruit farms, or for fruit- and vegetable-packing companies.

Jorge Santiago, right, at the Kennett Middle School cafeteria, receives breakfast and lunch as part of the migrant education program.

Under the Education Department’s interpretation of the law, families that have moved to a school district seeking work in agriculture or fishing, but have landed other jobs, still qualify for the program. But if they moved to a school district without intending to work in agriculture or fishing and ended up getting such jobs, they don’t qualify.

Jorge Santiago’s situation illustrates the complexity of the rules. The boy has been in the migrant program for 2½ years, and when three years are up, he has to meet federal criteria to requalify as a migrant. To do that, his family would have to have made another move across school district lines, and his father would have to have changed jobs. The family is set to move soon to a district nearby, but it’s not clear if Jorge’s father will change jobs.

Chester County is home to 12 school districts and has 1,484 children in the migrant education program. A number of former participants, who were instructional aides for the migrant summer school classes in Chester County, said the program helped them get a good education.

One of them is Gonzalo Cano, 21, who graduated from Pennsylvania State University last spring with a degree in international relations and who is pursuing a master’s degree in the same subject at Villanova University.

He was 17 when his family moved to Avondale, Pa., to work on mushroom farms. He’s had enough experience with that line of work to know he wants to do something else with his life, he said recently. When he picked mushrooms on weekends and during summers while a teenager, he reported to work at 3 a.m. so there would be time for the mushrooms to be packaged and transported to customers on the same day.

“It’s very stressful,” he said. “The boxes are heavy. You are in this room where it is dark and cold.”

Mr. Cano credits the migrant program in the 5,400-student Avon Grove district with helping him learn English and figure out how to get to college. His father, who finished 6th grade in Mexico, and younger brother, who graduated from Avon Grove High School, still work on mushroom farms.

Varied Family Situations

For families in Chester County’s migrant education program, the level of isolation from the rest of U.S. society varies. And with some families, the link between their occupations and agriculture or fishing is not readily apparent. The federal government requires that a migrant child’s or family member’s job qualify as being agricultural or fishing work only at the time of recruitment.

Itzel Alcantar, facing forward, listens to her teacher during an ESL class, part of her schedule of activities provided through the migrant education program at Kennett Middle School in Landenburg, Pa.

Of three families interviewed here recently, only one included a parent who currently was working in a job that is considered agricultural. That was Jorge’s father, Jorge Santiago, who works for a landscaping company. Some landscaping work, such as planting seedlings, is considered agricultural, while other work, such as mowing lawns, is not.

In contrast, Itzel Alcantar, a rising 8th grader at Kennett Middle School, in Landenburg, Pa., and her sister, Lizet Alcantar, who is going into 4th grade at Mary D. Lang Elementary School, have a father who works as a stone mason and a mother who is taking computer classes at a local Hispanic-advocacy organization. Nearly three years ago, when the children were recruited for the migrant education program, their father worked with citrus fruit for a distributor of organic foods, according to Nicole Prum, the supervisor of migrant education programs for the Chester County regional education agency.

Alejandro and Amin Ruiz, who are going into 10th and 11th grades at Kennett High School and who moved from Mexico to the United States two years ago, qualify because they moved to Pennsylvania with their cousin, who lives with them and who works in the mushroom industry.

Amin Ruiz, 17, second from left, participated in a migrant-student leadership program at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. With Amin are his brother, Alejandro Ruiz, 15, far right, their mother, Alejandra Hernandez, and her partner, Juan Lopez, left, in the backyard of their home.

Some Chester County educators favor a return to the pre-1994 policy that said families qualified if they had moved across school district lines in the previous six years, rather than the last three.

And Mr. Perry, of the Washington-based Interstate Migrant Education Council, said his organization also would like to see a change in the law that makes it easier for certain kinds of work—such as food processing or dairy farming—to be considered temporary, enabling more families to participate in the program.

Rudy Karkosak, the superintendent of the Kennett Consolidated district, said that while the federal migrant education program has provided valuable resources, recent cuts meant a reduction in the number of student-support specialists from four full-time specialists during the 2005-06 school year to one full-time and two part-time specialists last school year.

About a third of the 4,100 students in the Kennett district are Latino, and the district has a turnover of about 30 percent of its students each year. About 400 students are migrants, and that number has grown since the late 1990s, when men who worked in the mushroom industry started bringing their families to settle in the United States.

And for such children, the migrant education program’s services begin at the most basic level: One of the most important roles of the staff, Mr. Karkosak said, “is finding the families—making contact with the families and making sure the children come to school.”


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