Far from home


Migrants from the Rio Grande Valley travel to cornfields — and classrooms — in Illinois. After a hard and long day toiling in fields, many children end their days taking classes that help them keep up with their peers back in Texas.

Julio Hernandez plans on working with computers as a career. "Technology, like music, it's always been there for me. I like to mess around with computers a lot," he said.

"I am sensitive and strong," Julio Hernandez confesses in one of his poems, "Emotions." "I worry about my life and where I'm going to go."

16-year-old Julio makes his declaration in a hushed but steady voice in a classroom in Rochelle, about 80 miles west of Chicago.

His voice isn't small from embarrassment. Julio has no shame, no fear about what the sometimes-raucous teens around him will say as he recites the piece that he wrote earlier in the summer.

He, much like his 17-year-old sister Ismelda, a rising high school senior, just isn't the type to unnecessarily project his voice. To say nothing of the fact that Julio has, by this time – 7 p.m. on a Wednesday – put in a very long day.

These students' days stretch about 18 hours – dirtying their hands in the fields or prepping their minds in a classroom – and the evening is their chance to set aside their strength to be sensitive and funny and serious and flirty.

Making it to this point in the day, however, requires a work ethic beyond what most expect from teens, let alone most adults. The work Julio and his classmates do is not just physically demanding, it's dangerous. Near the end of their summer, two 14-year-old girls from nearby Sterling were electrocuted while working for the same company as Julio and many of his classmates. Yet for the group in Rochelle, all seem more concerned with their future goals than with their immediate situations.

Sorayda Felix, who teaches in the night migrant program, sorts through accountability paperwork for her summer students. Rochelle's migrant education program is federally funded.

"These are not typical, normal high-schoolers," says their teacher, Sorayada Felix, who during the year teaches special education at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, a suburb about 40 miles west of Chicago.

They're also not all in high school. The program serves a handful of middle school students and attracts two college students as volunteers. They are, however, all Texans.

Julio in June completed his freshman year at Benito Juarez-Abraham Lincoln High School in La Joya, Texas, a border town 1,400 miles from Rochelle, where his family lands each summer to find seasonal agricultural work.

This interrupts his schooling, as his family leaves Texas before the school year ends and doesn't return until after the next one has started. It means Julio, his sister and children from other migrant worker families are absent for, and therefore left out of, training in extracurricular activities, such as football or mariachi. For Julio and his nine summer classmates, it also means before he gets around to the evening program for migrants to write poems or make videos, he goes to work.

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He wakes just before 4 a.m., gets dressed and waits for a bus to pick him up about 5 a.m. on the outskirts of Rochelle. An hour later, he trades the bus for a cornfield in Rock Falls. Bleary-eyed on this Wednesday morning, he listens for instructions from his supervisor, pulls on rain gear and gets to work in fields of the United States' most popular crop, corn.

He stops for breakfast, lunch, water and trips to a portable restroom that stands at the field's edge.

In the morning, it's cold. Julio is soaked from working under irrigators. By afternoon, it's hot – hot and extremely humid – and the stalks of corn provide little shade. Early in the summer, he's done by 2. As the season wanes, he'll go to 5 and then until dark.

Migrant workers and their families come from out of state to do agricultural labor all over Illinois. Summer education programs intended to meet the needs of these children exist across the state. Here, Miguel Manero works with a kindergarten student from San Benito, Texas, outside the Fiesta Hotel in Pontiac, Ill. They study the alphabet in whatever shade they can find outside the motel where migrant families live through the summer.

There's nothing illegal about the intensive farm work these Julio, his classmates and local teens alike do – children can start when they are 12 years old, although some in the night school report starting to help their families in the fields at a much younger age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say agricultural work, which is largely unregulated, is some of the nation's most dangerous, with an average of 113 children under the age of 20 dying each year from farm-related injuries between 1995 and 2002.

"It gets frustrating after a while," Julio says of the redundant and lonely work, which in the early summer is roguing, which involves walking through rows of corn and cutting down stalks that have grown too tall.

He'll get up six days a week to do work that changes as the plants grow. For Julio and his classmates, the hours they put in are no excuse to fall behind academically. The work is what keeps them coming to school – and the fun, guidance and credit-recovery that school offers in addition to bolstering their chances for a promising future. Although they travel to rural Illinois from across Texas' rural Rio Grande Valley to work alongside their families, their goals are unique and will require them to continue to be statistical anomalies.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers' 2007-2009 survey, the majority of agricultural workers are Hispanic but only 26 percent are foreign-born. Most don't have a high school degree; on average, a farmworker in the United States has an eighth-grade education. Sixteen percent of agricultural workers are under 21. According to an earlier study, a third of children who work in the fields dropped out of school between 2001 and 2002.

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For Julio and Ismelda to follow through with their plans, to become a computer technician and an architect, they will have to beat the odds beyond those they face as agricultural workers.

The students at Rochelle's migrant education program come from Texas' Rio Grande Valley, an impoverished part of the country that borders Mexico.

Hispanics made up only 5.4 percent of the United States' science, technology, engineering and math workforce in 2006, according to the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California. A little over one in 10 college-aged Hispanics enroll in college, and even fewer hold degrees with STEM-related majors. The center says it's pivotal for Hispanics to enter into these careers, not only for equity, but also to keep from facing a shortage in the United States' STEM workforce, which innovates and keeps the nation competitive.

Julio, his sister, and four others in Rochelle's evening migrant summer program attend schools in the La Joya Independent School District. Since 2000, the district, with its southern border curving along the U.S.-Mexico border, has grown by more than 10,000 students.

Headquartered in La Joya, a town of about 3,000, the district's three high schools, eight middle schools and 23 elementary schools serve 27,935 students. They come from a handful of even smaller rural border towns and vast, unincorporated colonias, where converted ranchland goes for $26,000 an acre. Within the district's 229 square miles, nearly 100 percent of students are Hispanic; 96 percent are low-income; 13 percent are migrants.

Conversely, in Rochelle, the migrant education program students are far from the norm, even within the town's growing Hispanic population and agriculture industry. Enrollment in the town's six schools has meandered above and below 2009-2010's 2,176, but has generally remained the same.

Housing standards are subpar in the colonias that exist within La Joya ISD's perimeter, yet cheap land and limited building restrictions draw thousands to the district each year.

Only 17 students in the town's two districts are classified migrants. Yet, migrant classes, which serve children who are not doing fieldwork in the mornings and afternoons in addition to those who come at night, reach children from 20 to 25 families in the summer.

Rosie Medillin-Arteaga, director of Rochelle's migrant program, says the number of migrants in the district is on the decline, in part because families have decided to settle in the area. In Illinois, a child only qualifies for migrant services for three years after his or her family stops moving in and out of district lines in search of work. Medillin-Arteaga says many families still do agricultural work, but have managed to find year-round employment.

Rochelle has had a seasonal Hispanic population and small Hispanic community for decades because of the area's agricultural draw. The migrant program existed years ago, but fizzled until revived by Medillin-Arteaga three years ago.

Felix, a Hispanic Rochelle native, says she remembers receiving bilingual services as a child in the city's public schools, but she and her sisters, who were born in Mexico, were part of a small minority.

Today, 29 percent of students in Rochelle are Hispanic, up from 22 percent 8 years ago.

The district is struggling to keep up with these students, migrant or otherwise.

"They don't really know what to do with us," Medillin-Arteaga says.

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During the school year, Medillin-Arteaga teaches at Lincoln Elementary, where 49 percent of students are Hispanic and 33 percent have limited English proficiency; she is one of the campus' only Spanish-speaking educators, responsible for the bilingual program for kindergarten, first and second grade.

Julio and Ismelda attend Juarez-Lincoln High School in Mission, Texas. Only 52 percent of the school's 1,858 students met state academic standards last year.

In Illinois, schools have to provide bilingual instruction for students learning English, according to Mary Fergus, an Illinois State Board of Education official. If someone qualified cannot be found to teach, the district is required to find a paraprofessional and to also begin recruiting or developing a teacher. To specifically address the need for Spanish-speaking teachers, Illinois recruits from Mexico and Spain and has programs to help current teachers get bilingual certification.

In Texas schools, where Rochelle's summer students are enrolled most of the academic year, making sure migrants stay on top of their academics is key. They "count" towards their schools' annual yearly progress on state testing for No Child Left Behind if they are enrolled on the last Friday in October. Students also need class credits and passing test scores to graduate from high school.

Each of La Joya's three high schools has two migrant coordinators who make sure mobile students have information about their academics that travels with them. The district's teachers are majority Hispanic, and many have experience as migrant workers themselves, says J.R. Flores, the director of La Joya ISD's migrant department.

Workers from Texas, including children, line up and wait to be taken from central Rochelle to cornfields in Rock Falls, Ill. They are picked up each morning well before sunrise.

Flores, a graduate of La Joya High School and former migrant, worked in agriculture with his family as a child. He says systems for tracking students as they travel have improved over the years.

In the past, a teacher might make a packet of material to travel with the student.

Today, students carry information about their academic needs. In Rochelle, Medillin-Arteaga is able to call La Joya's migrant coordinators each summer to receive information on her students. This year, she has four who need to make up credits, ranging from biology to physics. One needs to pass her state assessment to graduate from high school.

Since they are not at their home campuses for summer school, the students can take makeup classes online and coordinate Texas state examinations. Medillin-Arteaga finds tutors who have the subject knowledge, and patience, to get the students where they need to be in a short amount of time.

"They're going to be working in the field, from 5 to 6 in the morning to 6 to 7 at night, go home, shower," she says. "I would say it would be hard for me to say, "OK, I'm going to do something else.""

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And still, the kids come three nights a week. For those who need it, tutors go to them, in their temporary homes or at the library, on additional nights to keep them on track.

Not all of the students need remediation. Many do well during the school year and come for enrichment, to work on college admissions essays and fun projects. Ismelda decided to get ahead and take an online economics class, which was paid for because she is a migrant. All the students wrote and illustrated a children's book over the summer.

Medillin-Arteaga says she wants this to be a positive experience for her students, not just an extra workload.

"They're kids. I mean, this is their summer. And they spend it working, with their mom and with their dad," she says.

Both Medillin-Arteaga in Rochelle and Flores in La Joya say they worry about the hours their students put in, but are primarily concerned with mitigating the adverse academics effects of missing school and moving across school districts.

Ismelda, right, hopes to run her own architectural firm someday, but for now, she's getting certified as a beautician through a program at her high school. She spent some of her summer researching architecture schools with Sorayda Felix, insisting that it would be worth it to attend an expensive private school.

Still, that these students even come to the program, of which there are several across Illinois, gives them an edge.

Flores says migrant students experience a lot of social isolation because they are newcomers where they travel to work, and are often latecomers at their home schools.

In Rochelle, the students break from work to tell stories and make jokes with each other, switching back and forth between English and Spanish. Their focus also shifts quickly between their class work, their friends and their cell phones, as they text friends and family back home in Texas.

Julio, the poet, says he enjoys his time here, even though he looks exhausted and his skin shows signs of having spent a day in the sun.

"It takes our mind off things, from work," he says. "It gives us a chance to be ourselves away from our parents and we have fun with friends."

Although the students spend the three hours or so at school joking, teasing, listening -- and occasionally singing along -- to music, Medillin-Arteaga is foremost impressed by their work ethic.

"They're motivated. They're go-getters. The first year I did it, I was scared, I didn't know what to expect," she says. "We had kids who needed help with calculus, who wanted help with college. It wasn't just, 'How do I graduate?' It's like, 'I want more.'"

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