Migrant Voices

Above video: Aleysa Garcia, a former intern for the Initiative, recites a letter she wrote to parents about her experience growing up in a migrant farmworking family.

Why Elevating the Voices of our Migrant Children and Families Matters

As summer and Fall come to a close, so did the harvest season for strawberries, cherries, peaches, apples and so many of the other fruits and vegetables we enjoy. The end of a harvest may not impact your overall quality of life, but for the (thousands) of migrant families who harvest our food, it poses significant social and economic challenges. For the children of migrant farmworkers in particular, migration means changing schools and teachers, sometimes two to three times a year, making it difficult for them to have stability and gain a sense of belonging. In many cases, the children of migrant farmworkers are chronically absent from school putting them at risk of falling behind and dropping out.

To shine a national spotlight on our migrant community and the issues migrant children face, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, in partnership with the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association launched the Migrant Voices series. The inspiration for the series came from a PBS documentary, Class of 27, Fields of Promise documentary that follows the journey of families living in rural America to learn about the impact of early childhood learning programs. One of the families featured in the documentary participated in the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program, a program that was created in 1969 to provide comprehensive early education services to the children of migrant farmworkers. The program provides services for over 32,000 students annually, focused on their educational, nutritional, health and social well-being. What makes each local Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program unique is the flexibility to customize programming in accordance to the local harvest. For example, programs often provide services for up to 12 hours a day- six, seven days a week, including holidays, because of the hours migrant farmworkers must work to harvest the crops.

Our Migrant Voices events were held in Wilsonville (OR), Fresno (CA), Sunnyside (WA), and Ruskin (FL) to engage the migrant and seasonal farmworker community (including agricultural and business leaders) in meaningful dialogue on the importance of a cradle to career education. The goal of the discussions was to elevate the voices of migrant families. In all four states, parents praised the local Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program, spoke about feeling engaged in their child’s education, and talked about the educational and career dreams they envisioned for their children. Parents also recognized their critical role in being their child’s first and most important teacher. They also spoke about their unique challenges as migrant families when they transitioned from their Head Start program – a program that met their unique needs – into the public school system. For many migrant families, the transition was anything but seamless.

It was important that we not only gave parents a platform where they could discuss their challenges, but that we also asked local leaders to participate in a solutions-based conversation addressing how they could better leverage resources in support of ensuring that the children of migrant farmworkers have access to a quality education. In Wilsonville, OR, parents brought up the issues with parent engagement and not knowing how to get involved in their child’s education, including issues with bullying. A local superintendent committed to addressing these concerns and also discussed how a new English Language Learner coordinator would help ensure that language would not be a barrier for parents. In Fresno, CA, local leaders committed to further collaboration efforts in order to break through silos and have more comprehensive service delivery approaches. In Sunnyside, WA, the gathering of over ten local superintendents resulted in several commitments, including a commitment to include a parent liaison on the local school board. In addition, a local grower spoke about the scholarships that they were providing children of migrant workers to attend college. Our Migrant Voices series ended in Florida, a state that serves over­­ 3,500 Migrant and Seasonal Head Start children. In Ruskin, FL, families and community leaders expressed concerns about the culture of schools, requesting a partnership between the parents and the schools. A school district representative responded to that concern with a commitment to engage more families and ask parents to participate in school engagement efforts. At the agricultural business and leader’s round table discussion hosted at the Strawberry Growers Association in Dover, FL; the growers, educators, and community leaders shared their long standing history of collaboration and partnership that has helped raise funds for scholarships to help migrant students go to college. They are striving to be a model of collaboration that promotes educational attainment for students and offered to share what has worked for them with other agricultural and community leaders across the country.

Giving migrant families a platform to be heard resulted in concrete actions. Most importantly, it serves as an example of how other communities can work towards ensuring a seamless transition from the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start program into the public school system that provides all children and parents with the opportunity to learn, engage and succeed. We know that early education is the fundamental cornerstone that promotes language development, problem solving skills, builds creativity and provides overall readiness for students to enter public school ready to learn. Conversations, such as these, need to continue so that those who are ultimately sacrificing to put food on tables across the country are receiving access to quality educational programs and are having their needs met. It is important that we help facilitate partnerships with the migrant community, local organizations, and agricultural business leaders to better leverage resources in support of preparing migrant children for academic success and providing them with the same quality education that all children deserve.

While one harvest has ended, families, educators, communities and farmers begin planting seeds for next year’s harvest.

Written by Alejandra Ceja, Executive Director, White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and Cleofas Rodriguez, Jr., Executive Director, National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association