Olga puts on a fleece pullover and wraps her head in a bandana while her husband dons similar garb. It’s four in the morning and still dark outside. They’re off to work in the grape harvest in Napa Valley, California. Olga is a recruiter for the Migrant Education Program (MEP); by working side by side with the farmworkers she hopes to recruit, Olga can talk about the services MEP provides, and hopefully, enroll them in the program.
Olga’s dedication is an example of what over 100 regional staff do to support farmworkers and their families. I met Olga in 2017 when I began coordinating the MEP; since then, I have become the regional director of the largest migrant education region in California. Migrant education programs support academic intervention for migrant students, as well as referrals and assistance with food, medical, dental and vision services to migrant family members. It is an all-encompassing program that is essential for vulnerable migrant families and students, yet it is rarely known or understood by educational and community institutions in the state.
After 30 years working with this program, what I have learned from the students, parents and staff is this – to be a migrant is to belong nowhere and have no lasting ties with anyone outside your family. For students, this can be isolating and make the process of attaining education a lonely journey. While the program endures challenges that often prevent me and my team from offering the best resources for migrant students and families, the potential for impact is more than worth the struggle.
Implementing MEP Comes With Challenges
The MEP is a federally funded program that was established under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Though it is not well known as a Title I program, the purpose of the MEP is to provide children of migrant farmworkers with appropriate educational resources to meet state academic outcomes and acquire a high school diploma.
Migrant education generally serves students from 3 to 21 years old. Some of the services and programs we provide in my region include Family Biliteracy, a dual-language preschool program for three, four and five-year-old children, and a housing assistance program offered in the homes of migrant families who lack transportation to centralized services. Our region also employs 30 teachers who offer writing and math interventions to students in kindergarten through 10th grade after school and in the summer while our support staff offer case management to ninth graders to ease the transition to high school and support college and career readiness.
The MEP has coexisted with much of California’s school reforms since its inception, including the current initiatives to address the learning challenges caused by the pandemic. As a result, the goals of the MEP, which are exclusive to migrant students, overlap with state initiatives that are available to all students. This proximity to state initiatives has impacted the MEP in ways that complicate its implementation, creating an academic landscape where students are inundated with competing services, and educators are overwhelmed trying to create them.
For instance, our staff usually calls migrant families to enroll their students into regional programs; however, it has become increasingly difficult to do so with school districts offering an abundance of afterschool and summer programs of their own. Though we offer funding to districts to create programming for MEP students, many districts have refused our funds in the last two years because of the extra money they have to use on existing school programs and services.
To make matters more complicated, migrant funding comes with various deliverables outlined in the State Service Delivery Plan (SSDP). Some of these deliverables require teachers and service providers to be bilingual as well as create programs that center family engagement. Although there are programs like Family Math Nights and Parent Advisory that meet the requirements for MEP funding, state stimulus funding does not address parent involvement or culturally relevant teaching practices. Therefore, when districts refuse MEP funds, these resources are not created or implemented.
These examples are the unfortunate consequences of abundant state funding which puts pressure on districts to ameliorate student underperformance and misses the opportunities for strategic funding like the MEP provides.
While it is an ongoing challenge to build academic opportunities and resources for migrant students, an important reality should be noted: by creating programs for migrant students, we are addressing the specific needs of a group of students who all share similar experiences – many of them traumatic – from living itinerant lives.
Despite the Challenges, the MEP Has a Lasting Impact
There’s something to be said for bringing students together from a common background to participate in learning. There’s a camaraderie among them that makes their experiences more meaningful because they feel like they belong. Roadblocks aside, we have managed to coordinate and build a number of programs that have had a lasting impact on student and family participants.
In 2017, after implementing the MEP at the district level, I coordinated a large credit recovery program called Adelante, an MEP program where credit-deficient high school students attend summer classes to recover needed credits. It was unlike any other program the district had previously provided. We held the program at a local community college and recruited instructors to teach all subjects and staff trained to support English learners. Students participating in the program received free breakfast, lunch and transportation to and from the college. Nearly 300 students recovered over 800 total credits that summer alone.
We also offer a regional residency program at Fresno State University (FSU) in the summer for 50 students in grades 9 to 11. Students attend classes on various subjects taught by college professors including literature, coding, algebra and college readiness. Students also have the opportunity to stay overnight in the dorms, see the FSU soccer team play intercollegiate tournaments and take advantage of the Olympic-sized pool to escape the summer heat.
At the end of the FSU program last summer, one of the girls threw her arms around me and thanked me for offering such an incredible opportunity. When we followed up with families in the fall, I spoke with her mother about how she used to get in fights at school and was always in trouble with her teachers. After the program, an advocate from FSU got her involved in a boxing club in her hometown where she put her fighting skills to positive use. We also learned she was focused on improving her grades so she could be sure to go to FSU when she graduated.
Recently, I spoke to Cecilia, one of the support staff in our regional MEP office, who works directly with the Out of School Youth program. Cecilia talks about her sister, an MEP alumna, who is now a neuroscientist and researcher:
After working for the MEP for the last six years, Cecilia was happy to pay it forward for a program that had a tremendous impact on her family.
These kinds of experiences go far beyond intervention and closing a learning gap. The MEP offers migrant students a rare opportunity to feel like they are not alone and that there are educators and administrators who understand and are trying to help. It has been these glimpses of transformation that drive my passion for leading the MEP.
What You Should Know About the MEP (and What It Means to Me)
The stories and first-hand accounts I’ve described comprise a much greater truth about the MEP that often goes unnoticed. Some educators may believe the MEP to be a funding stream with overly complicated implementation requirements, but meeting those requirements is what supports migrant students in making progress and getting ahead. Challenges and implementation issues aside, I believe it is a program where an administrator still has a chance to directly impact students.
Working at the district level, I always felt isolated from teaching and learning. In the MEP, I can call upon the skills I learned as a Title I teacher every day when I consult with districts about the kinds of programs they provide. I work with regional teachers and their supervisors to develop programs, acquire the right curriculum, evaluate our services and make choices in the interests of ongoing improvement. It’s hard, daunting and sometimes exhausting work, but all I need to do is speak to one of my staff or the parents and students in my program to know there isn’t anything I’d rather do, or any other place I’d rather be.