Several hundred teenagers filed into a swanky event center in the Imperial Valley town of Heber on a recent Friday morning. By all accounts, they look like typical high schoolers — smacking gum and texting away. The vast majority are Latino.
At first glace, this event center, with waiters in neckties, seems like a strange place to hold a college prep seminar. But taken together with the surrounding hay fields complete a sort of meaningful metaphor for these children of migrant farm workers. The message: graduate from the fields; go to college.
Jaime Carias, a recruiter for the College Assistance Migrant Program at CalState Long Beach, pumped up his audience.
“I’m the oldest of three, first in my family to graduate from high school, first in my family to get a BA degree, first in my family to get a masters’ degree, first in my family to have a career and not a job,” Carias tells the crowd.
Many students here will boast such firsts. And some will thank the federal Migrant Education Program for helping them succeed.
Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame” shed light on the dismal lives of American farmworkers and the educational hurdles faced by their children. The documentary helped spur the passage of federal legislation to improve opportunities for migrant students.
Today, the Migrant Education Program serves about 345 thousand students aged three to 21 — most of them Latino — across the country.
California has, by far, the biggest program, serving some 80 thousand migrant students. That support includes tutoring and help making up coursework and credits they might miss because their families move around during the school year.
That’s the case for Analee Cine, a junior at Holtville High School. “You start the year and they teach you something, and then when you move they teach you something completely different,” Cine says.
Up until recently, Cine would start each school year in Hollister, some eight hours north, and end it in the Imperial Valley. Cine’s mother is a farmworker, but her daughter's path is shaping up to be a much different one.
She wants to attend UC Santa Cruz and become a marine biologist. Cine’s two older sisters are already working on degrees — one at UC Irvine and the other at a community college.
Diego Lopez, principal of Frank Wright Middle School in nearby Imperial, said migrant parents seem to increasingly prioritize education for their children. “In the past, for economic reasons parents would take the kids with them,” he says. “And in many cases, like the case of my wife, they were also part of the labor force.”
Lopez’s wife became a successful businesswoman after working in the fields as an adolescent.
Now, he said, parents are more likely to make arrangements so that their kids can stay in the same school throughout the year while parents follow the crops:
“And so a lot of these kids stay with relatives,” Lopez says, “an aunt, a grandmother, a neighbor. That, in itself, is a hardship, as well.”
Academically, at least, those tough decisions may be paying off. According to data from the California Department of Education, migrant students in the Imperial Valley graduate at slightly higher rates than the student population as a whole. And fewer of them drop out of school.
Statewide, on the other hand, migrant students still graduate at a lower rate than the general population.
All this data, however, isn’t entirely reliable, according to the state’s official watchdog. In a recent report, the California State Auditor’s office criticized the state Department of Education for failing to evaluate the effectiveness of its migrant program, despite a federal requirement to do so. A spokesman for the education department said an evaluation of the program was being finalized.
Back at the college prep seminar in Heber, many migrant students said they were grateful for the extra boost they were getting from the migrant education program.
“It has been awesome because they call you in, they look over your grades to tell you, ‘ok, you can fix this, go to tutoring,’” Julie Mosqueda, a senior at Central Union High School in El Centro, says. . “And they have helped me a lot with my college applications because they have my transcript all ready, they’re ready for me to go in and apply,” she says.
Mosqueda says she’s applying to three state universities and wants to study kinesiology. Her parents, she explains, didn’t even make it to high school:
"So it’s a great motivation that they think I can make something out of myself.” In the short term, Mosqueda plans to seek out, and face, her challenges in the classroom.