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Here in Plant City, an agricultural town 23 miles east of Tampa, the weather is at the top of every news report. Will the temperature fall below freezing? Will the crops survive?

Despite the weather and the fact that her livelihood now depends on it, Francisca Ibarra, migrant farm worker and mother of four, manages to stay calm. She knows all too well that the only thing tomorrow promises is uncertainty. Some days, she works the fields; others, she does not. Some weeks, she and her husband pull in $600. Others, they eke by on $30.

Ibarra and her family have been in Plant City, Florida's strawberry capital, since October, when the cucumber season began to wind down in Ohio. For the eldest child, the move South meant leaving his school and starting up in a strange new one 1,200 miles away--but not for 6-year-old José Angel, Ibarra's second child. This fall, the teachers at his school, La Escuela de San Jose, a Roman Catholic elementary school, packed their bags and followed the Ibarras and a number of other families to Plant City.

The nation's first mobile school for migrant children, La Escuela de San Jose has operated on a shoestring since it opened in September. Nonetheless, it offers a much-needed sense of stability to the 16 kindergartners and 1st graders who will attend the school for the next three years.

The students, all of whom are Mexican or Mexican-American, are the children of farm workers who share a similar migratory route. From late August until early October, the children go to class in a borrowed room at St. Joseph Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio. Then, as winter approaches and another picking season beckons, the students--and the school's six full-time staff members--gather their belongings together and head to Florida, where they resume their studies at an underused Catholic facility in Plant City.

For the children of most migrant farm workers, the nomadic lifestyle--the frequent comings and goings--takes a devastating toll. Many become isolated and academically overwhelmed at school, suffer from low self-esteem, and begin to drop out as early as the 3rd grade. According to a 1986 report, such children have the lowest graduation rate--somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent--of any identifiable population in the nation's public schools. This, combined with dreadful health and living conditions, leaves many migrant children with limited prospects.

Some migrant parents believe the public schools are part of the problem. "Lots of times they don't even want to register migrant children,'' says Margie Arevalo, whose daughter, Isabel, attends La Escuela de San Jose. "They think you're a waste of their time.''

No one could lodge that complaint against the team of teachers at San Jose. They shuffle chores, drive school buses, and do whatever it takes to get students to class and to give them a stimulating, high-quality education.

The school day begins some time after 7:50 a.m., when a noisy yellow school bus and a van--both driven by San Jose staff members--pull into the driveway of the St. Clement Education Center, a white stucco building framed by an arched walkway. The St. Clement Parish is loaning the school some space--two classrooms, a kitchen, and a common room.

In fact, the entire mobile-school venture is made possible through a number of similar donations. Four of the teachers are members of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, a coalition of more than 7,000 nuns. It serves as the project's primary benefactor, but private foundations, federal money, and other religious groups also support San Jose.

The school relies on other acts of kindness, as well. St. Joseph Elementary in Fremont lets the San Jose students take part in many school activities tuition-free. This fall, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Toledo put up the staff members free of charge in a vacant convent. And here in Florida, a pharmacist in Lakeland moved out of his own home so school staff members, who have become migrants themselves, could have a place to stay rent-free.

"It's called on us to live more simply,'' says Sister Gaye Moorhead, the school's coordinator. "There are some days I feel like I'm living out of a suitcase, but I think: Wow, these families, they live with what they can travel with in their car, which often includes the full family. And they come and have to find housing, and so, we've got it very easy here.''

Although the concept for a mobile school was hatched in the late 1960s by Sister Moorhead and San Jose's nurse practitioner, Jane Kallous, it wasn't until September 1993 that "it became an idea whose time had come,'' Sister Moorhead, a child-welfare lawyer, says.

The effort began with the Sisters of Mercy making the necessary connections, seeking out willing personnel, and locating a somewhat predictable migration stream. Once they'd chosen the Fremont-Plant City route, the sisters began to recruit students, stopping by trailer camps and talking to children and their parents. One week before the start of the school year, the team had signed up 24 children. But almost immediately, five were lost to Michigan's apple harvest. So the school opened with 19 students.

For about a month, Sisters Patricia Kelly and Patricia Lamb taught the new students in the St. Joseph Elementary classroom. Then the farm workers gradually began to head South. The team showed the Florida-bound parents a picture of the St. Clement Education Center and gave them pre-addressed, stamped envelopes to send to the school when they got settled in Plant City.

As the first families hit the road, so did Sisters Moorhead and Kelly. Sister Lamb and outreach worker Sister Nancy Donovan stayed behind until the last of the school's families left Ohio.

Although the students live in Florida for the better part of the school year, the teachers use St. Joseph's curriculum; it lends an element of continuity. "It's not necessarily that they'll have the same teachers for three years, as that's not true of any kids anywhere,'' says Sister Moorhead. "But they will have the same materials that they would have in a normal curriculum and the same faces.''

The teachers also make every effort to integrate Mexican culture and the Spanish language into the curriculum; staff members who aren't already bilingual are taking Spanish lessons. The staff also provides one-on-one tutoring, family counseling, and medical services. Nurse Kallous, for example, makes sure that all the children get their immunizations and receive proper medical care.

As the school's outreach worker, Sister Donovan takes the students and their older siblings on outings and coordinates special events for families. She also hopes to organize a program to help parents earn their high school diplomas.

The news in the morning papers is good: Florida's $100 million strawberry crop is safe, at least for now. The sprinklers did the trick, and workers like Francisca Ibarra will return to the fields and a regimen that takes them plant by plant, row by row, through the winter and into the spring.

The goal of La Escuela de San Jose, Sister Donovan says, is to give the children of these farm workers a strong academic foundation and a sense of continuity that is otherwise missing in their lives. With a good education, she points out, they will have opportunities and choices their parents never had.

Picking crops "is honest, hard work,'' Sister Donovan says. "But it's backbreaking, monotonous, and routine. And I don't think a 14-year-old girl who drops out of school in the 7th grade has much of a choice about whether to live this lifestyle or not.''

--Laura Miller

Vol. 06, Issue 08, Page 1-24

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