Summer School Helps Bridge the Gap For the Children of Migrant Workers in Ohio

Carolina Velasco Bautista displays the class salamander, Sally. [photo: Michelle Faust/ ideastream]
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by Michelle Faust

Ohio’s warm, humid summer days are giving way to cooler shorter ones. It's a sign that the local growing season is coming to an end and agricultural workers, along with their families, are preparing to move on to other states. For the children in these families, the transient nature of their lives means moving from school to school. One recently completed summer school program aims to bridge educational gaps for these kids.

It’s a classroom like any other in the small Northwest Ohio township of Old Fort, a class of nine middle and high school students fidget while science teacher Jim Less presents a unit about DNA.

This is 14-year-old Carolina Velasco Bautista's favorite course. After playing with the classroom salamander named Sally, she washes her hands, and listens closely to Mr. Less’ instructions. As she strings together a DNA strand out of red vines, gummy bears, and toothpicks, she explains why DNA is an exciting subject for her.

“Honestly, I want to be a CSI—a forensic crime scene investigator. I mean, I watch all those shows Criminal Minds, you know, all those NCIS, all that,” says Velasco Bautista.

Her teachers say she’s one of the top students: dedicated, hard-working. Considering how many different schools she’s been to in her short life, it’s a good thing she has a focus.

“We’ve been here, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, and New Jersey,” she says.

Her parents are agricultural laborers and they follow the seasonal work. The other kids in this summer class are like Velasco Bautista. When cucumber season ends, most of the kids in this summer migrant program will move back to Texas or Florida after a few weeks in the local public schools.

The teen with black-framed glasses doesn’t complain to me about the lifestyle that has her moving from school to school, but it does create educational challenges for many kids.

“They fall behind a lot,” says José Salinas, director of the Ohio Migrant Education Center.

Salinas oversees 9 federally-funded summer programs throughout the state—programs that keep students out of the fields and keep them learning.

Many of these children will attend three schools in one year which can disrupt their education. Add to that, many are English Language Learners. And they face logistical challenges.

Salinas knows this first hand. He was a migrant student who switched between high schools in Ohio and Texas—two states with different course requirements.

“At the end of my junior year, I’m already one semester behind and how am I supposed to make up that semester credit?” Salinas recounts how an economics course he took in Texas didn’t transfer to the diploma he was attempting to earn in Ohio.

Because of his background, Salinas is uniquely positioned to direct Ohio’s migrant programs that worked with more than 650 students, both in day and night classes—and sometimes in their homes.

Ann Cranston-Gingras, Director of the Center for Migrant Education at the University of South Florida, says the challenges facing kids who spend their summers in Ohio are common among children of agricultural workers.

“If you're getting your education piecemeal—in different places—but then you're being held to an assessment that's based on one particular state, you’re going to have difficulty,” she explains.

Cranston-Gingras says summer migrant programs keep kids from falling further behind. They’re an important partial solution for the more than 300,000 migrant children in the country.

Elsa Briseño plans to move back to Texas with her husband and 8-year-old son Ray in October or November, after the agricultural labor dries up.

“Traerlos uno para acá sí les ayuda. Yo le digo por una hija que en aquellos años nosotros nos la trajimos y andábamos en la labor “Amá, este trabajo no es para mí.” Y ahorita ya tiene 35 años, pero le hecho ganas al estudio… Ella ahora es consejera de los estudiantes en la universidad.”

Bringing them here does help them. I say it because of my daughter. Years ago we brought her and she’d tell me this work is not for me… And now she’s 35 years old and she worked hard on her studies and now she’s a college counselor.

Briseño beams with pride for both of her children.

Back in science class, Velasco Bautista explains that her parents have high expectations for her, too.

“They don’t want me working out [in the fields] like them. They really want me to be successful in life. I can make it if I try really hard for it,” she says.

Although she faces challenges, the summer program aims to give her a boost to help her reach her goals.

Reporting on this story also appeared on Ideas and Sound of Ideas.

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