MAXWELL:  Technology helps give an education to migrant kids

8/29/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Education is the main key to success in the United States, even for the children of migrant farm workers. However, for these children, unlike their typical American counterparts, getting an education can be as elusive as finding the Holy Grail.

In their 1971 book, Migrant Agricultural Workers in America’s Northeast, William H. Friedland and Dorothy Nelkin describe the enduring education dilemma these children face. Uncannily, the authors’ long-ago words are just as true for the children of 1999:

“Education, though valued by most migrants, is another area of ambivalence. On the one hand, it is felt that education is the only way to free one’s children from the migrant situation; intelligent, responsive children are a source of pride. Similarly, among the children, there are many who enjoy school and aspire to continue. On the other hand, the desire for education often conflicts with the economic needs of the moment; children in school cannot be supplementing family income and they are a constraint on the necessary mobility of their parents.

“Thus, children with educational aspirations are often discouraged. In some cases the source of discouragement is merely the inconsistencies between values emphasized in school and realities at home. In others, aspirations are squelched deliberately by the bitter and possibly more realistic adults.”

Each year nationwide, tens of thousands of migrant children follow their families from coast to coast to harvest the inexpensive produce the rest of us enjoy in abundance. Meanwhile, the children account for a 50 percent school dropout rate nearly every agricultural state, including Florida. School officials, whose budgets are tight and whose resources are slim, struggle to no avail in most cases to pull these children out of the migrant stream and into the mainstream.

Moving from one part of the country to the next, migrant children lose valuable classroom time. In many instances, the curriculum of their home state does not match that of the new state. All too often, the children must pack up and move just when standardized tests are being administered. Such discontinuity means the students are almost always behind after they return home when the harvesting cycle ends.

Many school districts nationwide attempt to help. Some have implemented programs that send lessons on the road with the students. Parents, many with poor English skills, must monitor their children’s progress. Obviously, such efforts yield minimum results because teachers are not directly involved each day. Florida’s Martin County has one of the best programs in the country, but it too regularly falls short of adequately preparing its mobile clientele.

Last week, the New York Times reported on a new federal computer program that could help if it is implemented nationwide. Called Estrella (“Star” in Spanish), the 2-year-old project, paid for with a $400,000 grant from the United States Department of Education, gives laptop computers to a limited number of Texas teenagers who migrate to New York, Illinois and Montana. This year, 50 students are taking part.

After the students sign a pledge to complete seven hours of homework each week, they and their parents are trained to use the computer. During the day, the students work in the fields alongside their relatives. At night, the children click onto a variety of courses offered by NovaNet, an online education company. Most of students must take their laptops to local school campuses to log on because the labor camps where they live are not wired.

In some locations, the local school district provides at least one teacher who meets with the students one-on-one to answer questions. Estrella also provides a Texas-based Web master, who helps the children with technical problems.

Many migrant educators argue that the Internet project is too expensive _ about $8,000 per student. They would rather use the money to pair the students with live instructors. Other say, however, that some students move so often and live in sites that are so remote, they have little time to meet with a flesh-and-blood teacher.

Ultimately, the laptops are giving these migrant children the best education they are going to get at this time. Some of them become discouraged because they are too tired at night to concentrate. Most of the parents are satisfied because the computers give their children the freedom to travel from crop to crop. After all, a family’s financial well-being depends on the number of hands in the field.

Is Estrella the answer? Partly.

The real solution _ which the nation lacks the moral will to provide _ is found in the comments of Columbia University Professor Douglas Sloan in the New York Times: “It promises to solve a problem without addressing the real nature of the problem involved _ an exploitative labor system.”

As long as the nation demands dirt-cheap agricultural labor, getting an education for the children of migrant farm workers will remain elusive and a source of ambivalence. America should be ashamed.