Equity & Diversity

Ore. School District Reaches Out to New Arrivals From Mexico

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 27, 2002 12 min read
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Only through a roundabout way did school officials here learn that 18-year-old Estela and 16-year-old Javier even existed. The recent emigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, were forgoing school to help their family get settled in the United States.

The family of eight had been living with the teenagers’ aunt for a month, and a neighbor had reported to local authorities that the household seemed crowded.

To check out the situation, the Hillsboro school district sent Maria C. Arellano, a home-and-school consultant for one of the high schools here.

“The mom was terminally ill, and the kids weren’t coming to school because they didn’t have food or clothes,” said Ms. Arellano, who is fluent in English and Spanish. “My job was to find resources.”

She collected some money from the principal of the school where she works and bought groceries for the family. Soon after, Estela and Javier enrolled in high school.

Helping Mexican immigrant families in such a manner is commonplace for the 15 home- school consultants in Oregon’s 19,000-student Hillsboro school district. Employed by the district’s federally financed migrant program, they see it as their job to help families meet basic needs so immigrant children are more likely to attend school.

Many of the families that the consultants work with are living in the United States illegally and, therefore, don’t qualify for government-sponsored social services. So the consultants link them up with local churches or community groups that run employment programs or provide free meals.

Some of the most disadvantaged people living in Hillsboro are those who have come from Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states. The difficulty of making a living in that largely rural region has caused emigration from Oaxaca to increase dramatically over the past decade. (“Educating Mexico,” March 20, 2002.)

Poor farm families from Mexico move to the countryside of Oregon seeking the backbreaking work of picking berries, cucumbers, or grapes.

A booming suburb of Portland, with strip malls and condominiums, as well as fruit and vegetable farms, Hillsboro has a large concentration of emigrants from the Mexican state of Michoacán. The second-largest community of Mexicans are Oaxacans.

How the Hillsboro school district reaches out to Mexican migrant children, particularly those from Oaxaca, illustrates the interconnectedness of the Mexican and U.S. school systems and suggests ways districts elsewhere might equip themselves to help immigrants from the very bottom of the economic scale.

Poorest of the Poor

Guadalupe, a 31-year-old Trique Indian woman from Oaxaca, seems to have brought her subsistence way of thinking from Mexico to the migrant- labor camp where she lives.

Asked if she was content with the elementary school that her two sons attend, Guadalupe nodded. “The school has food and hot water,” she said in Spanish, while scrubbing clothes by hand under an outdoor faucet.

It would be hard to say with any certainty that Guadalupe has bettered her and her family’s living conditions by moving from Mexico to Oregon. In the migrant camp, which is a compound of drab one-story buildings with wooden siding, families are each assigned a single room for their living quarters. During the peak working season, as many as 20 families share the communal kitchen and campground-style bathroom facilities.

Another Oaxacan, Roberta, who lives with her Oaxacan husband, son (who was born in Tijuana, Mexico), and daughter (who was born in Oregon) in an apartment, said that if people have to live in the migrant-labor camps, “it would be better to be in Mexico.” In the camps, she said, speaking in Spanish, more people share the same bathroom than they would in Mexico.

New arrivals to one of Hillsboro’s migrant-labor camps include 15-year-old Juliana. The Trique Indian from Oaxaca, along with her husband, joined her older sister’s family here about a year ago. Both she and her sister never went to school in Mexico and are illiterate. This past winter, they stayed in the camp during the day, caring for their young children, while their husbands worked.

These women are typical of some of the Oaxacan mothers who send their children to Hillsboro schools. Fostering good communication with them, says Gail S. Merrion, the coordinator for the district’s migrant and English-as-a-second-language programs, is one of the biggest challenges she faces in trying to help their children do well in school.

Many Oaxacan children and youths in Hillsboro have gone to school in Mexico, but they may have attended some of that country’s poorest-quality schools.

Youths from Oaxaca tend to have more gaps in their education than those from some other parts of Mexico, said Olga L. Acuña, the director of ESL and migrant programs for one of Hillsboro’s high schools.

“We have so many students who come from Mexico with a 9th or 10th grade education. They can graduate in two years,” she said. “Very few come from Oaxaca with that experience. It takes them four years to graduate.”

Estela, for instance, had completed 9th grade in Mexico, but tested here as reading at about the 7th grade level in Spanish. Her brother Javier tested at a 3rd grade reading level. Both teenagers, who speak the Indian language of Mixtec at home, attended a telesecundaria school in their village, in which a substantial amount of instruction is provided by televised lessons broadcast from Mexico City. Mexican education officials have acknowledged that implementation of the TV- based program is flawed in some communities.

Hillsboro school officials also note that the discrimination that indigenous Mexicans face in their own country doesn’t disappear when they reach Oregon.

“You will find the Oaxacans tend to stay in certain [migrant-labor] camps because the other Mexicans tend to look down upon them,” Ms. Merrion said.

While none of the bilingual home-school consultants here is of Mexican-Indian heritage, about one-third of them grew up in migrant families.They draw on recollections of their childhoods to empathize with migrant families, including some of the poorest of the poor who come from Oaxaca.

“We lived in labor camps,” said home-school consultant Seferina DeLeon-Dale, 50. “We followed the potato crops. I missed a lot of school, and I hated that. Back then, they sat you in the back of the room.”

She remembers disliking how her teachers would call her “Stephanie” or “Sarah” instead of “Seferina.”

“I love working with the Hispanic, low-income people,” she added. “I feel for them. I don’t remember anyone coming to the school to help me.”

Home Visits

A primary role of the Hillsboro home-school consultants is to visit on a regular basis the area’s 21 migrant-labor camps and the homes of immigrant families new to the district. The consultants’ task is to assure the families that their children are entitled to a free, public education in the United States, even if they are undocumented, and to determine if the families qualify for the federal migrant program.

Such outreach workers are an important component of almost all school programs across the country that receive funding from the $396 million federal Migrant Education Program, says Francisco C. García, the director of the office of migrant education for the U.S. Department of Education. States receive money based on how many migrant students they have, ages 3 to 21, which they channel to schools. The schools then use it to support the migrants in extra ways, such as providing bilingual teachers’ assistants, summer academic camps, and after- school programs.

“This is a population that has been left out due to its mobility,” said Mr. García. “At the same time, it’s a population that contributes to this nation in many ways. These are the people who put the food on our table.”

Some Mexican families don’t realize that, unlike in Mexico, children in the United States can be enrolled in school after the start of the school year.

The consultants, Ms. Merrion said, “are the bread and butter of our program and our main contact with parents.”

About 1,530 children, nearly half of Hillsboro’s English-language learners, participate in the district’s migrant education program, which is paid for under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. To be eligible, families must have moved to the school district within the past three years and have been seeking work in agriculture, fishing, or forestry.

If children qualify for the program in Oregon, they receive state health-care insurance that covers 80 percent of medical costs, the opportunity to attend an academic camp in the summer, and the support of the district’s home-school coordinators, in addition to help with learning English, which all immigrant children receive.

Home-school consultants check in with some particularly vulnerable families on a continuing basis.

For example, they’ve stopped several times by the home of 8-year-old Antonio. The boy, his sister, and his mother journeyed from Oaxaca to be with his father in the United States two years ago. Still, he doesn’t seem to be at ease in school.

Ms. DeLeon-Dale believes the boy is overwhelmed with moving constantly from the Mixtec world of his family to the Spanish world of his neighborhood to the English and Spanish world of his school.

She and her home- school-consultant teammate, Angela Gonzalez, visited Antonio’s home this month to request parental permission for an Education Week reporter to observe Antonio at school, only to find that Lino, his father, had pulled him out of school that week.

Antonio is fighting with other children in school, Lino explained, speaking in Spanish. “I don’t like the complaints,” he said.

He handed over several official school papers, none of which he seemed to understand, to the two district workers, and for more than half an hour poured out his frustration over his dealings with his son’s school.

Lino’s possible solutions to the problem included transferring Antonio to another school, moving his family to Washington state (where Lino worked previously), or forgetting about school and sending Antonio to the Hillsboro Boys & Girls Club each day.

The home-school consultants explained that not sending Antonio to school would be against the law, but they left other options open to Lino.

“How do you want us to help you? Would you like to sign the form asking for a school transfer, or would you like us to hold a meeting with you in the school?” Ms. DeLeon-Dale asked him in Spanish.

In the end, Lino agreed to a school meeting, which the home-school consultants would also attend.

Such encounters with parents make the consultants believe that visiting children’s homes, instead of expecting parents always to visit their children’s schools to discuss concerns, is important to keep abreast of problems that may seriously affect a child’s schooling, Ms. DeLeon-Dale and Ms. Gonzalez say later.

Help in School

While home-school consultants help families provide a home environment that helps support schooling, ESL teachers or bilingual teachers’ assistants often become advocates for Mexican migrant children in school.

Michelle D. Antico, a bilingual ESL teacher at an elementary school here that enrolls many children who live in migrant-labor camps, said she sometimes feels she’s one of only a few people in the school who are deliberately advocating for the migrant children.

For instance, she encourages staff members to translate school newsletters into Spanish and the PTA to get the word out to migrant families about such opportunities as softball teams or Boy Scouts, so their children can be more a part of the school community.

“One of these in-service days, we need to get into a van and go to the camps and see what the children’s living quarters are like, and how they are different from everyone else’s,” Ms. Antico said. “The playing field is not the same.”

All English-language learners in the Hillsboro district receive ESL lessons. The district also provides some regular classrooms with bilingual teachers’ assistants. If students read below a 3rd grade level in Spanish, the district provides them with a daily lesson in Spanish literacy as well, to improve their literacy skills in Spanish while learning English.

School staff members point to some Oaxacan students who attended Hillsboro schools for a while and have progressed in their studies.

Seventeen-year-old Ivan, for example, who emigrated from Oaxaca to Hillsboro two years ago, didn’t know any English when he arrived, but he’s now comfortable conversing in the language and is on track to graduate from high school next year. “I would like to go to college,” the junior said in English. “What I have in mind is to be a teacher.”

Ivan had finished 8th grade in Oaxaca.

Sixteen-year-old Alberto, a Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca who enrolled in the Hillsboro district last year and also had finished 8th grade in Oaxaca, is progressing, too, though he still doesn’t speak much English.

Speaking in Spanish, he said that having the chance to go to school is one thing that makes his life “a little better” in the United States than it might be in Mexico.

He appreciates the two meals he receives at school and the fact that his U.S. education is free. In Mexico, he said, students have to pay entrance fees, buy uniforms, and purchase their own food.

If he were still in Mexico, Alberto said, he would definitely be working—growing and harvesting beans and corn—rather than going to school.

But the district also loses a lot of its Mexican immigrant students. Its dropout rate for Hispanic children is 10 percent, more than three times the rate for students overall.

One important aspect of the Hillsboro migrant program seems to be flexibility.

For example, the district runs English classes on summer evenings for migrant youths, ages 14 through 21, who live in Hillsboro only during the peak season of picking fruit or vegetables. After working in the fields all day, they have time to take a shower and then show up for a meal and classes.

“Sometimes, that’s the only school they’ve ever been to,” Ms. Merrion said. “They are very serious.”

Moreover, Ms. Merrion is always poised to mobilize her home-school consultants after U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service enforcement officials sweep through the community— occurrences that put parents on edge about sending their children to school.

Ms. Merrion estimates that about two-thirds of the migrants in Hillsboro are undocumented. Often, the father has legal papers to live in the United States, but the mother and children do not, she said.

When such sweeps occur, schools call her and report a lot of absences.

In response, she holds meetings to assure parents that INS officials aren’t permitted to set foot on school buses or school grounds unless they have a warrant with a specific child’s name on it. Then, she sets about another task: She sends home-school coordinators out to visit families once again, this time to let parents know it’s safe to send their children to school.

Note: Education Week used only the first names of parents or students interviewed for this article to protect the identities of immigrants who may be undocumented. The article also omitted the names of schools that children attend in the district.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Ore. School District Reaches Out to New Arrivals From Mexico


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