For migrant students, a cycle of dwindling opportunities

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By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 8:48 PM

In her purple school binder, 13-year-old Ellifina Jean counted down the last days of the apple harvest, crossing off one box every afternoon, bringing her closer to a big smiley face and the words, scrawled in all caps: “DADDY’S LAST DAY OF WORK!”

Ellifina and her family were preparing to leave Virginia’s Winchester area apple orchards for Florida’s orange groves before heading north again, toward New Jersey, in search of blueberries. For Ellifina, each season brings a new school and a new list of courses that bears little resemblance to the last.

Such relentless mobility challenges the schools charged with educating the nation’s 475,000 migrant students. Many never start school, and in Virginia one-third fail to graduate on time. Migrant students trail others in performance on the state’s reading and math tests. That poses a major challenge for schools because federal law has set a goal for all students to pass those tests by 2014.

The stakes are even higher for the students themselves. “If these kids don’t settle in one place by high school, graduation is basically an impossibility,” said Katy Pitcock, who worked for Winchester’s migrant education program for 25 years, until 2004.

The most recent harvest brought Ellifina, known to her friends as Fifi, and her 15-year-old stepsister, Barbara, to Virginia’s largest migrant camp, a rundown agglomeration of one-story cinder block buildings constructed to house German POWs during World War II. It’s sandwiched between two apple-processing plants and just a half-mile from Winchester’s elaborately restored downtown.

After several months in the camp, Ellifina was starting to feel the gravity of routine. A school bus dropped her off at the camp from Daniel Morgan Middle School, where she attended seventh grade. She sat down on a wooden bench and pulled out her homework: a few pages of photocopied math problems. But as the apple season came to a close, it was getting harder to focus.

Ellifina wanted to graduate, maybe even go to college. But for now, she was more interested in getting out of Winchester. She was tired of lying to her friends about why she got on the bus at the camp, owned by the Frederick County Fruit Growers Association. She was tired of her bed, which looked like a glorified ambulance stretcher.

“If it were up to me, I’d get my people out of here,” she said.

Difficult moments

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the camp, Ellifina was sitting with 13-year-old Iris Juarez when the trucks and vans began to arrive. Workers piled out of the vans: old men with hard bodies, fresh from some of the country’s largest apple fields. Out of the trucks, drunk men, on their day off from the fields, led women toward the camp’s sparse rooms.

“Prostitutes,” Iris said. “Again.” She whispered, so that her younger siblings – 10, 8 and 3 – couldn’t hear.

These are the moments Iris struggles with most – when she tries not to hate her father for bringing her here. She knows it pains him to corral the family into their tiny room whenever his co-workers return with alcohol and women.

“It’s not easy for my dad. He could’ve left us in Mexico, like most of the guys did with their families. But he wanted us here.”

“The other guys don’t have the capacity up here,” her father, Beto Juarez, said, pointing to his head. “And they don’t have the capacity here,” he said, pointing to his heart.

Since 1965, the federal government has spent several billion dollars to accommodate migrant students such as Iris. An offshoot of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program, the Office of Migrant Education was created to give migrant children access to year-round day care and schooling. The office, which receives $400 million annually, funds summer camps, tutors and a smattering of local liaisons who aim to to alleviate the disruptions of itinerancy.

The program at first catered mostly to African American children, who traveled among farms and orchards along the Eastern Seaboard. But now it serves mainly the children of Haitian, Jamaican and Mexican workers. Each of those groups has its own wing at the Frederick County Fruit Growers camp. Some are permanent U.S. residents. Some are here on temporary work visas. Others are here illegally, using false Social Security information to secure jobs in the fields, which pay about $7.50 an hour.

In Winchester, the Fruit Growers camp is now dominated by single men as the legal and financial obstacles to familial migration have mounted. In 2002, there were 2,548 migrant students in Virginia, by the state’s count. In 2009, there were 1,051. Some of those students have left the traditional migration cycle, settling in Winchester with their families, where they are eligible for the program’s services for three years after taking root.

As the number of migrant children dwindle, the challenges of educating them do not. Students are now given a 12-digit code that identifies them as migrants in a national database and gives schools a chance to piece together their jumbled academic history. Yet the system remains porous. Schools often fail to notice that students are migrants until they abruptly disappear at the end of a harvest.

“If you can’t identify them, you can’t serve them,” said Patricia Meyertholen, a top official at the federal Office of Migrant Education. “But with so much movement between states and countries, especially in border states, it’s a tremendous challenge.”

The federal government is encouraging states to accept a common set of academic standards for English and math, an initiative that might help migrants. Most states have signed on. But Virginia officials have declined to do so because they prefer the state’s own standards.

At the Winchester camp, students’ frustration about their fragmented education is overshadowed by a more immediate concern. The sprawling migrant camp, they say, is not a place for children.

It’s the reason Ellifina’s Justin Bieber poster remains unfurled and her walls are still sparse. It’s why she never bothered to unpack her bags, even though she’s been living in Winchester for three months.

“This is not a home,” Ellifina said. “It just feels like we don’t belong here.”

Against the odds

Seven years ago, Juarez paid a coyote $8,000 to sneak his wife and three children across the U.S.-Mexico border. To repay that debt, Iris and her mother cook dinner every night for about 40 of the camp’s workers, who pay about $30 a week each for their meals.

Iris and her mother eat last. And then, about 8:30, Iris starts her homework.

“It’s just that there isn’t enough time. I know I could do well if I had more time,” she said.

Against the odds, Iris was succeeding, earning three A’s and two B’s. They were the best grades of any migrant student this year, one of her teachers told her.

When she and the other kids at the Fruit Growers camp talked about their ambitions, Iris was the first one to mention college. But privately, she had her doubts about that plan. The family was here illegally, making her ineligible for most forms of financial aid. Even the College Assistance Migrant Program – intended specifically for the children of fieldworkers – requires documentation that Iris doesn’t have.

“I know we did something wrong. I know we broke the law. But I’m here now, and I just want to go to school and do things right.”

For its part, the Office of Migrant Education – though established to cater to U.S.-born migrants – doesn’t ask for the documentation of its students.

As Iris’s family started packing their truck for the ride to Florida, she and Ellifina spoke like girls on their last day of summer camp.

“You better call me,” Ellifina said. “I’m going to miss you guys.”

“We’ll visit you in Okeechobee,” Iris replied.

Both families plan to return to Winchester next summer just as abruptly as they left, Spider-Man and Hello Kitty backpacks in tow. A large portion of migrant students bounce among the same schools and camps each year. But with different curricula and requirements for graduation, each time they return to a school, they’re further behind.

As both families prepared last weekend for their next move, the camp was beginning to feel like a ghost town. Its former residents, already on their way to the next harvest, had sketched vague messages in the camp’s dusty windows. “My love I will never forget you,” someone had written in Spanish.

Iris and Ellifina were taking turns brushing each other’s hair, when they saw a groundhog scurry under a wooden apple crate, disappearing into the earth. They chased him for a few seconds, yipping and laughing and then peering into his hole.

“Has he been here the whole time?” Ellifina asked. “I guess he lives here, too. All year long, he lives right here.”