Migrant Education Program Changes Lives in Coolidge, Arizona

Published: October 17th, 2017
migrant farm workers near Coolidge

The following article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Pinal Ways Magazine. All photographs are courtesy of the Coolidge Unified School District.

Migrant Education Program plants seeds of hope for next generation

By DARREN BARAKAT, Pinal Ways Magazine Sep 28, 2017

Seth Holmes, an American doctor and anthropologist, spent more than a year and a half doing something unimaginable to the typical Arizonan who works full-time in an air-conditioned office. He picked fruit on farms in North America alongside the migrant workers who have no other way to make a living.

His book “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States” details his experiences feeling half asleep when starting work, suffering from knee and back pain, and doubting he could continue to work so fast with his arms while his legs fell asleep from lack of movement.

One day, as he has told multiple interviewers, he wrote “this feels like pure torture” in his journal.

Common descriptions of migrant farm work in the United States include words such as “grueling” and “exhausting.” Days can be more than 12 hours long and often include exposure to pesticides, walking through narrow trenches between crop rows and spending much of the day bent over. Oh yeah, and summertime temperatures in much of Arizona surge above 100 degrees.

The pay? According to an Indeed.com survey, the average farmworker in Arizona makes less than $11 per hour.

Parents of children enrolled in the Migrant Education Program work long, hot days as seasonal agricultural laborers. Children enrolled in the MEP receive services to help mitigate the effects migrant work has on academic progress.

Thanks in part to the U.S. Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program, these farmworkers’ children have a chance at an easier life. Almost 400 such children, including those whose parents work on dairy farms, are enrolled in the program through Pinal County school districts.

The Migrant Education Program (MEP) is a federally funded, state-operated program that provides services to the children, ages 3 through 21, of seasonal or temporary agricultural workers. The U.S. government established the program as part of Title I, Part C, of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the program has been reauthorized over the years, most recently by the Every Student Succeeds Act.

According to the Department of Education website, “all children in the United States are entitled to equal access to a public elementary and secondary education, regardless of their or their parents’ actual or perceived national origin, citizenship or immigration status.” The program was designed to help provide equal access, so students “who move among the states are not penalized … by disparities among states in curriculum, graduation requirements or state academic content and student academic achievement standards.”

The latest figures from Arizona show about 11,000 students in the state are enrolled in the program, including 375 in Pinal County. Among state enrollees, 85 percent are in the Yuma area, said Mary Frances Haluska, Migrant Education Program director for Arizona. The state Department of Education website shows there are migrant education programs at four Pinal County school districts: Casa Grande Union, Coolidge Unified, J.O. Combs Unified and Stanfield Elementary.

Carmen Navarro, a migrant education interventionist with the Coolidge Unified School District, has seen first hand how much the program helps migrants.

young boy in graduation cap
This young preschool graduate enrolled in school with the help of employees from Coolidge USD’s Migrant Education Program.

A family with six children moved last year from California to the Coolidge area, Navarro said. One of the children needed special services, and the parents did not have the school records necessary for the child to qualify. The Coolidge staff tracked down the records.

“It took a couple of weeks,” Navarro said. “When you move from school to school, those records can get lost.”

During the initial meeting with parents, Coolidge staff discovered the family had a 4-year-old son who was not in preschool, so they helped to get the child enrolled.

“That family has really flourished,” Navarro said. “Mom and dad are working, the kids are doing well in school. That was a real success story.”

According to migrant education representatives from the Coolidge, Combs and Stanfield districts (Casa Grande Union did not respond to messages seeking information), common benefits and services include tutoring and academic support, and financial support for school items and sometimes even non-school items. Districts, however, are unique in what they are able to provide and what their families need most.

public meeting
Coolidge USD holds quarterly information meetings for current and prospective MEP families.

The Coolidge district holds a quarterly meeting to get feedback from parents. “They tell us what kind of services they would like,” said Jess Miller, director of curriculum for the Coolidge school district.

The Coolidge program has 148 participants from 51 families. It’s run by a full-time recruiter, Yolanda Magallanes, and two interventionists, Anthony Gonzales and Navarro, who work full time for the district but not exclusively on migrant education.

Parents of Coolidge students enrolled in the program would not speak to Pinal Ways in person but provided answers via email in Spanish to Magallanes, who relayed questions to them.

A mother who would only be identified as Mrs. Barrera said she appreciates the help and the communication from the district’s quarterly migrant education parent meetings and from regular contact with staff.

“The migrant team helps me if I have any problems,” Barrera wrote. “The team tells me what to do and who can help me. They advocate for me.”

Barrera wrote that through the program, directly or indirectly, she has received food, backpacks, personal hygiene products, assistance paying sports participation fees and enrollment in a Toys for Tots program. She was also referred to an attorney for legal advice on immigration questions, enrolled in an English class, and given information about “community resources” for help paying dental, health and other bills.

Another parent, Mrs. Ramirez, wrote that she received food and help paying a class fee, and she was “guided to resources to help with electricity, water and rent.”

According to Gonzales, who helps students apply for college and scholarships, “Most of our students and families are intimidated by the process because they may not understand it well enough. We do and we are there for them through the process.”

The Coolidge staff feels good about the work they do to help migrant families.

“It is rewarding to assist the unique and underserved population of students,” said Magallanes. “We help make sure students feel successful. We bring the families together, and among each other they have a sense of community.”

Kelly Guerra, coordinator of community education, runs the program for the J.O. Combs District with help from migrant liaison Elizabeth Kloehr, who also works as the district’s homeless coordinator. Thirty-nine students in 21 families are enrolled, Guerra said.

Migrant students typically lack internet service or even a computer in their homes, Guerra said.

“As we move toward digital resources, that’s a challenge,” she said.

The district is ordering two laptop computers to help with that, she said.

Guerra said migrant education students get food, clothing, school supplies and backpacks through a food bank that is open to all area residents and funded by donations. For medical and dental needs, families are referred to doctors and dentists who provide free or reduced services.

Guerra and Kloehr work with teachers and staff to find out what support is needed but often can’t offer after-school tutoring because the school doesn’t have late buses.

One migrant education student Kloehr works with requires special education and has an individualized education plan (IEP).

“Elizabeth is there for every IEP meeting and acts as a liaison between the home and school. She works side by side to help the family navigate that system,” Guerra said. “They (the family) bring her food. They just love on her for what she’s been able to do.”

Participation in the Stanfield district program ranges from 80 to 95 students, said Melissa Sadorf, district superintendent. The program is operated by a part-time clerk, a part-time coordinator and an instructional aide, the equivalent of 1.75 jobs.

Sadorf said a big issue in Stanfield is the isolation that comes with the language barrier and living in “a very rural community.” Many of the students are classified as ELL (English language learners) who don’t speak English fluently.

Sadorf said the children receive tutoring, backpacks, and resources for school supplies and homework materials. The district also works with providers in Casa Grande for free or reduced eyeglasses and dental checks.

The program creates “opportunities for parents to get involved, transportation to meetings for parents and home visits,” Sadorf said. “It’s a broad base of support that’s offered through a lot of access to services. The school steps in and fills the need that otherwise wouldn’t be filled.”