By ELIZABETH DANEFF
Capital News Service
LANSING — Southwest Michigan is working to meet the educational needs of migrant students through innovative summer learning programs.
Michigan’s migrant labor force is one of the largest in U.S., second only to California. More than 45,000 transient migrant workers come to the state to help harvest Michigan’s most valuable agricultural resources, such as beans, strawberries, cherries, tomatoes and cucumbers.
But education officials are concerned that migrant children are missing out on important health and education instruction while moving around the country.
According to Marco Flores, a regional manager for Telamon Corporation in Michigan, most migrant students come to Michigan a month or two before the school year ends.
“The most important thing to do is connect families with local educational resources,” Flores said.
Telemon Corporation, a nonprofit organization, helps provide employment and training services to migrant farm workers and their families. Flores said emphasis is placed on giving workers the tools and resources needed to make a smooth transition into Michigan’s workforce.
Flores works with “at risk” young adults between the ages of 14 and 23. His organization provides learning experiences such as field trips, college visits and state landmark tours, that participants wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.
Fortunately for Michigan, Flores said, migrant students are offered a variety of educational and training programs that are easy to access.
“Almost all children that come to Michigan with their parents have the opportunity to be educated,” Flores said.
The federally funded Migrant Education Program, through the Michigan Department of Education, provides education support and training to many of Michigan’s migrant children.
More than 8,500 students are enrolled in the year-round program, and more than 8,600 take part in the summer school program.
Michigan schools receive special funding to provide extra support for districts with a large migrant population. But educating migrant students goes far beyond reading, writing and math, officials say.
Linda Forward, state consultant on migrant education, said the program also works with health clinics, dentists, optometrists and nutritionists to provide health support.
“Migrant children need services above and beyond the regular education curriculum,” Forward said.
Insufficient health records and language barriers are often the most complicated matters when providing education programs.
Health and immunization records get lost in the move. In Michigan, students must be fully immunized before attending a public school.
Many children are the only members in their family who speak English, which presents trouble for parent-teacher conferences and homework help. Frequently, children have to translate between teachers and parents.
“What you find are gaps in education,” Forward said. “Curriculum and testing is different [between home states and Michigan]. It’s not a lack of intellect, it’s the constant moving.”
Forward said that problem isn’t unique to migrant students. It occurs with any student who is frequently moved from one school to another.
Alejandra Garrett, migrant program coordinator for Sturgis Public Schools, said its six-week program helps almost 200 students each summer.
Students can apply in April and May for the summer migrant-education program, but their family must have lived in the district no more than three years, and be working in an agricultural position. That can vary between fishing, harvesting crops and processing food items.
Garrett said most of Sturgis’ migrant population comes directly from Mexico, where migrants, who live in rural areas, begin working in fields by the time they’re in sixth grade.
“Some students come to enroll in ninth grade, but they’re a couple years behind,” Garrett said. “We teach them reading, writing, math, science and social studies. With everything we do, we try to improve the English language skills.”
Program participants also experience many social activities outside the classroom such as swimming and field trips.
The Michigan State University Extension in Cass County, in coordination with local summer education courses, provides migrants with nutrition and food safety lessons.
Cynthia Warren, MSU extension educator, said part of the program’s regular services includes lessons about the food guide pyramid and proper food handling using culturally familiar foods.
“Hopefully, we’re laying some groundwork for younger generations,” Warren said. “Historically these children have had a high fat diet. We try to incorporate foods they’re accustomed to but still getting nutritional value.”
Warren said the extension used to have a bilingual associate, but in recent years has had to make do without one because of costs. A future goal for the extension, she said, is to be able to reach more adults with nutrition education.
Migrant children who are too young to participate in local summer school programs can enroll in the Michigan Migrant Head Start Program. Available for children between two weeks and 5 years old, the program combines education and nutritional activities to more than 1,600 children across the state.
Operated through the Telamon Corporation, 60 centers educate children between 10 and 12 hours a day. The seasonal program ranges between 12 weeks and eight months, depending on the area’s growing season.
Patricia Raymond, state Head Start director, said having bilingual staff helps children learn both English and Spanish. She said children often go home and teach their parents the English they learned during the day.
In Three Rivers, a broad-based migrant education program has yet to be developed. Three Rivers High School Principal Dan Ryan said the high school has only three Spanish-speaking students, so the need for a comprehensive program hasn’t arisen.
The students receive exclusive special support from a bilingual paraprofessional who works half-time at the high school and half-time at the middle school. According to Ryan, the students have very limited English proficiency. The district provides resources for students who use English as a second language (ESL).
“We offer the students ESL software to help them with their studies, but that only takes up a small part of the day.”
Ryan said that if more Hispanic students begin enrolling in the district, the school system would do everything possible to accommodate their learning needs.
Education officials across the state have praised the Portable Assisted Studies (PAS) program as an effective resource for educating migrant students.
The semi-independent correspondence program helps students involved in alternative, adult and migrant education programs complete high school credits for graduation.
The five-unit curriculum involves standard high school courses, complete with an exam.
Five units of algebra, with a passing test grade, for example, are equivalent to a semester’s worth of work.
Marion Stiles, Michigan’s PAS director, said the program is great for migrant students because they can take the work anywhere they go. As long as a teacher conducts the test, the credit is equal to being in a classroom.
“From calculators to textbooks, we provide everything a student needs to take the course,” Stiles said. “Credits are then sent back to their home school district, where they’re applied towards a high school diploma.
“Migrant workers are so excited to earn a high school diploma, and cooperation between states has been just great.”
Stiles said federal funding for PAS was cut almost four years ago for political reasons. For now, students that participate in the program must pay for it.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By ELIZABETH DANEFF