MAXWELL:  Here, migrant children get the help they need

4/5/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVEsection of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If you leave the major highways in this area east of Lake Okeechobee and venture a few miles inland, you will see migrant farm workers, mostly adult Mexicans and Guatemalans, stooping in fields, harvesting vegetables, picking citrus, maintaining ornamental plants, milking cows.

Away from these places of toil, however, is the world of children, where education is a prized possession. While many Florida counties give lukewarm support to migrant children, the Martin County school system, one of the state’s wealthiest, has made educating these children a priority, says Mary Alice Stewart, coordinator of the migrant program. The county has four campuses that concentrate on migrant education.

With an annual budget of $200,000 and five employees _ two certified teachers and three non-instructional workers _ the program is comprehensive and serves about 140 families, amounting to about 600 children from preschool through 12th grade. Among their efforts, staff members recruit and identify migrant families; identify medical problems among children and adults and arrange appointments with health officials; and provide adequate housing, clothing, shoes, transportation and food.

In addition to the town’s acceptance of the migrant population, the key to the program’s success is helping parents feel like members of the school system in general. Here, teachers and other staff play a crucial role by being highly visible in the community.

“Our toughest problem is our continual effort to get parents involved and included within the school community,” Stewart said. “We want them to join the school improvement teams and feel comfortable to go to the school for PTO meetings.

“That’s another reason for getting our staff out to the meetings. We don’t want the parents coming here to our office _ but to the schools. We want them to start building relationships beyond us, to build relationships with the schools themselves. Some do already. But many don’t speak English and are reticent because they’re not familiar with American schools.”

The teachers spend much of their time visiting the homes of the students. Sometimes the visits are simple opportunities to chat with the parents. Often, though, the teachers are arranging parent-teacher conferences, learning why students have been absent, coordinating medical appointments, letting parents know about important meetings they should attend.

Dolores Castilla and Renee Geeting, the two certified teachers, do not apologize when saying that they have dedicated their lives to the students and their families. They regularly work 10-hour days, tutoring into the evening.

Although the early childhood program, where the children learn to value themselves and learning, is a major focus, the teachers are acutely concerned about the high school students. Many perform poorly in class not because of a lack of intelligence but because they have deficient English skills and do not enroll in the local schools until October or even November after returning from working up north.

Unfortunately, many of the northern courses may not match the ones here, causing the students to have insufficient credits. The Martin County program offers fully credited, after-school courses that let the student remain in the proper grade.

A student arriving in late October, for example, may not have enough credits to qualify for 10th grade. Instead of holding the student back, however, the program lets him remain in 10th grade while he takes ninth-grade courses after school. By all accounts, this system is succeeding.

Mirroring national trends, the dropout rate among migrant students here has declined during the past five years, thanks to efforts such as this one in Indiantown. When students drop out, and some do to help their families earn income, staff members encourage them to earn a GED.

Stewart points to several individual success stories. Last year, one student won a four-year science scholarship to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “She’s doing really well,” Stewart said. “She’s excited. The scholarship was the only real way she probably could have gone to college. There are other children in the family, and there’s no way they could have sent her.”

Another student, who did not attend college, was persuaded to fulfill his dream of becoming a crew chief. After graduation, he became the leader of a group of golf course maintenance workers in Martin County. Today, he owns a successful greens maintenance company in North Carolina.

Continuity in learning often means the difference between academic success or failure for migrant students, Stewart said. For that reason, the summer institute was established. She and the teachers have succeeded in persuading many parents not to leave the area before final examinations. And when the families head north, parents are given instructional supplies and games for the children and are encouraged to work with them on the road. After the families return in late summer, the teachers immediately resume their work with the students.

For migrant children, physical life is hard. But the psychological ambivalence caused by public perceptions of their plight is more difficult to cope with.

“They’re hard workers,” Geeting said. “It’s hard to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and work until dark out in the sun and in the rain or whatever the weather. The kids generally agree that their lifestyle is honorable, and they’re very proud.

“But, at the same time, a lot of other kids think that (working in the fields) is a strange thing for people to do. So the migrant kids become embarrassed. That’s a shame because the migrant lifestyle really is honorable work.”

School, Geeting said, may be the single most important force in the lives of these students because education gives them self-respect and dignity.