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Withering on the Vine

Why it’s hard—and getting harder—for the kids of migrant farm workers to get an education

I leave Los Angeles just before 6 a.m., headed northeast. It rains for most of the drive, but as I come out of the Tehachapi Mountains on Interstate 5, the valley before me is bathed in sun. California’s Central Valley is a flat, quilt-like patchwork of fields that’s known as the food basket of the world. It produces a year-round supply of almonds, asparagus, cotton, kiwis, lettuce, oranges, peaches, pistachios, tangerines, and tomatoes—pretty much every crop you can think of. And, of course, there are the grapes, sold intact or turned into raisins or chardonnay.

I turn onto State Route 99, heading north to the Kern County seat, Bakersfield. In the 1930s, agricultural workers forced to migrate from the drought-ravaged Great Plains made this same trip. John Steinbeck chronicled their struggles in that classic of American literature, The Grapes of Wrath. These days, the average Central Valley migrant farm worker still earns less than $10,000 a year. Because so many migrant workers are undocumented, it’s tough to pinpoint exactly how many there are in California. Estimates range from 250,000 to close to 1 million. And many workers don’t come alone—they bring their families.
In 1960, Edward R. Murrow’s documentary Harvest of Shame turned the spotlight on the experiences of migrant children. At the time, only one out of every 500 migrant children finished grade school and only six states had summer school for them. The federal Office of Migrant Education was created in 1965 to ensure that these children had equal access to educational opportunities.
Today in Kern County there are roughly 15,000 students in the migrant education program, which is made up of extended studies—before- and after-school programs, one-on-one tutoring, Saturday school, and summer school. The national migrant education budget runs about $400 million, and given the large number of migrants in California, the state, which is divided into 23 migrant education regions, gets about $130 million.
I meet Philomena Hall, the professional development coordinator for Region V, in a Denny’s parking lot on the southern edge of Bakersfield. She’s about 5-foot-5 with a wide smile and shoulder-length auburn hair that’s cut into a bob with a flip on the end. Hall greets me warmly, and soon we’re heading to visit a Saturday school.
As recently as 2006 there were about 320,000 students enrolled in migrant education programs statewide. Nowadays, that number has dropped to about 157,000. It’s not that there are fewer migrant students, Hall explains. Instead, the federal government has implemented more rigid policies for identifying them. The tightened rules and regulations are thanks to a federal audit discovering that a handful of states were claiming they had more migrant students than they actually had.
There’s some debate over what "migrant" means. Ten years ago, workers were more transient, following the crops from Texas to California to Washington and back to Texas. Although some workers with families still follow that circuit, Hall says many families now try to put down permanent roots, sending only one parent away to pick crops. But thanks to the new regulations, in order to qualify for migrant education the entire family must move every three years. If they don’t, the children can’t get the extra academic support the migrant education program provides.
To figure out if a child qualifies for migrant education, school officials used to just have a conversation and take the information from family members. Nowadays, says Hall, "about the only thing they don’t ask them is their underwear size."
After the initial interview, the migrant education officials randomly re-interview people, and so does the state. Even when parents want the best for their kids, it’s tough to get them to jump through all those hoops. Undocumented migrant parents become fearful that all of the questions will put them in a situation where they are arrested. Then their kids, who are off at school, will be left on their own. "So they prefer to keep them pretty much hidden," Hall says.
The migrant education program can’t ask whether a student is undocumented. But even if parents are, frequently "we’re not talking about the kids who have crossed the border," says Hall. We’re talking about kids who were born here. They do "live in communities where Spanish is highly spoken, so they do have language issues, but that’s not the children’s fault," she says. The migrant education program focuses on developing their English.
Ideally, a student starts school in September with everyone else, stays through the end of the school year, and gets extra help through the migrant program. But some students come in May and are gone by the end of the summer. Others might start on time but won’t get connected to the migrant education program until January. Once spring hits, attendance at after-hours and Saturday sessions can be sporadic thanks to baseball and other activities. There’s no guarantee that the same students will show up to every session, which makes it challenging for the teachers to make real progress. But that hasn’t stopped them from trying.
* * *

I follow Hall’s white pickup truck down a two-lane road lined with crops and the occasional oil refinery, a reminder that three of the five largest onshore oil fields in the United States are in Kern County. The oil production, combined with industrial farming and thousands of semi trucks passing through, has pushed Bakersfield to the top of the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of most polluted cities. Our first stop is Arvin, a small town about 20 minutes to the southeast that in 2007 was given the dubious honor of having the worst smog in the United States.
We arrive at Sierra Vista Elementary School, where we meet up with vice principal Betty Guyton, a 17-year veteran of the Arvin Union School District who has been the district’s migrant education director since 2005. Guyton says there are close to 900 students enrolled in migrant education in the tiny district—and enrollment is half what it was before the new regulations took effect.
Since 30 percent of Arvin’s students are migrants, the district allots four weeks of winter vacation to accommodate families who head to work in other places at that time of year. If they are gone longer and then return, they have to provide extensive documentation and requalify for the migrant education program. Last winter, Guyton says, one "very determined, very active mom" really wanted her child to be in the winter academy, a two- week intersession for kids in the program, but the family had to work in Mexico for five weeks. I told her, 'Go, you have to do that,'" says Guyton. Otherwise, their child wouldn’t be eligible for extra resources to catch up academically in the spring.
It’s a perverse incentive system. To qualify, families must continually move, but there’s also a stringent policy on attendance. "If students miss too many days, then the parents will be questioned," says Guyton. A school attendance review board, which is affiliated with the local district attorney's office, will step in. Migrant families don’t want to risk being tangled up in the court system. The alternative is to avoid participating in the programs altogether.
The students at Sierra Vista’s Saturday school come from Arvin's three elementary schools and one middle school. On the Saturday before spring break, 141 students are here, eager for lessons in language arts, math, and writing, as well as the arts and crafts that they miss out on during the traditional school day.
Guyton says the kids who get extra help have higher test scores. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, scores at Sierra Vista are expected to go up every year. That means students spend some of their Saturday school time working through practice booklets forthe California Standards Test. The migrant education program also provides students with cultural experiences because the tests frequently ask for the "best answer." When you don’t have the cultural references to understand the questions, it’s tough to get the answers right. Raising the scores year-over-year isn’t easy when teachers have different students all the time, "but if they don’t disappear for a couple of months, they won’t be qualified for migrant education," Guyton says.
In a pre-K class at Sierra Vista, Olga Calderon, a senior at Cal State Bakersfield, works with 3- and 4-year- olds, teaching them letters, numbers, colors. Calderon grew up in Mexico and came to California when she was 17, attending Arvin High School for three years before going to college. She’s part of California’s Mini-Corps program, an effort that connects the kids with college students who were themselves migrant children and now want to be teachers. "I want to help them because I understand their situations," says Calderon, who will graduate in June and hopes to find a full-time teaching job. "I’m here to tell them, you can be whatever you want in your life."
* * *

Philomena Hall and I drive back down the highway to Lamont, California, which has a population of just over 15,000. Here, we meet up with Anna Medina, the migrant education director for the Lamont School District. She’s not interested in politicians’ sound bites about education being the civil rights issue of our generation. She sees how migrant students live. She explains that when migrant families come here for the summer, many live in temporary housing—work camps that are either publicly or privately owned. The Weedpatch Camp, the same government-owned camp where the Joads resided in The Grapes of Wrath, is down the road. It’s formally known as the Arvin Federal Government Camp, but locals call it the Sunset Labor Camp.
"I call it 'the resort,'" Medina says. Many families have only one room. "Mom and dad live in there, and several siblings. It’s lights-out at a certain time because mom and dad have to get up early to work the fields." But the children still need to do their schoolwork, so Medina and Hall bought them flashlights at the dollar store. They had to do tons of paperwork to justify the expense.
Every little bit of light helps. Only a quarter of people in the Bakersfield area have an associate’s degree or higher—the second-lowest education level in the nation—and the dropout rate for migrant kids is four times the national average. Medina works hard to get her students to graduate. She says most of the younger kids still have "a lot of hope and joy and enthusiasm." With the older students, "because of what they’ve gone through, maybe they haven’t been as successful as they’d like to be," she says. "The sparkle isn’t as bright. That’s my job, to try to bring the sparkle back." The stakes are high. If the students drop out, they’re not always going to work in the fields like their parents. There’s a growing gang and drug problem in the area.
Medina hired teachers to tutor at the homes of seventh- graders who are at risk of not graduating from middle school. The teachers work one-on-one with students, but a parent has to be present, so they’re both learning, says Medina. That helps the entire family—some parents only have a second- or third-grade education.
It’s not unusual for Medina and her staff to be out past 9 p.m. and then at work the next day at 6 a.m. Medina has become such a fixture in the community that former students have named their children after her. She’s retiring at the end of this school year, but still plans to volunteer—she loves the children too much to quit. "Our students are just as capable, just as loving, just as loveable and they really want to learn," she says. "I call them tesoros— they’re treasures."
I want to see the Weedpatch Camp for myself, so we say goodbye to Medina and I follow Hall’s pickup there. Behind a chain-link fence at the camp, half a dozen pit bull puppies bark ferociously while their mother gives an unwelcoming growl. Some of the original buildings described by Steinbeck are still at the camp—they’ve been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1996. New cafeteria buildings and tiny beige houses dot the rest of the facility. The camp is empty now, but after May 1 it will be packed.
Hall tells me that to live in the camp workers have to be able to prove they’re here legally. Of course, the local farmers also hire plenty of workers without papers because, like their Steinbeckian forebears, undocumented migrants are willing to work long hours for low pay. Those families live in the private camps, which are our next stop.
We drive a few miles down Weedpatch Highway, cross some train tracks, and pull off onto a nondescript, pothole-filled dirt road. The train tracks run parallel to the road. Two gigantic electrical wires run overhead. The voltage is so high that when I turn off the radio, I can hear the surging electricity.
Hall’s truck stops in front of what looks like four or five semi-truck trailers on stilts sitting behind a fenced-in area. I would have assumed they were for equipment storage, but there are several entrances to each, and every door represents a separate home—entire families are living in 8-by-10-foot spaces. Fields of verdant grape vines ring the camp. The skin color of the people picking those grapes may have changed since Steinbeck’s day, but I feel like I’ve stepped back in time.
Hall wants me to understand that this is the context of the migrant education program. She’s not for abolishing camps like this—some undocumented families without housing sleep in onion fields. Without camps provided by the farmers, migrants would have it worse. "They would have nowhere," Hall says.
I can still hear the power lines crackling. The air pollution stings my eyes. A stray dog circles the trailers, and there’s one shade tree—no grass, and no place for the children to play. There’s no air conditioning or refrigeration in the trailers, and Hall says morning temperatures can hit 105 degrees in early May. By summer, they’re sweltering. The landscape turns dusty and hot and brown. The families have to be "pretty darn tough to endure," Hall says. She offers a gentle reminder: Next time you’re drinking a glass of zinfandel or chardonnay, remember that "a lot of people worked really, really hard" to produce it.
Soon the families will arrive, and the migrant education teachers will head into the camps to recruit children for summer school. Whether the migrants come from Oklahoma or Mexico, they’re all trying to eke out a better existence in a new place. For their children, another season brings another chance.

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