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Farmworkers Feed Us. How Do We Support Their Kids?

Tennessee Watson

Angel, a tall, lanky 14-year-old, dribbles down the basketball court of the school gymnasium in Manvel, North Dakota. Realizing he’s unmarked he goes for the three-pointer. It’s a nice arching shot, but the ball bounces tenuously on the rim and doesn’t go in.

It’s the middle of summer and Angel is already thinking about trying out for his high school’s basketball team later this fall. But he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to.

Angel’s parents are farm workers, and for as long as he can remember his family has migrated between Texas and North Dakota. Every year Angel misses the beginning of the school year in Texas — when basketball tryouts happen — because his family stays in North Dakota until the harvest is through. It could be October or November before they’re done.

That flexibility is a big deal for farmers who rely on seasonal workers to quickly harvest and process crops before they spoil. But it puts those workers’ kids — around 300,000 of them nationally, according to a Department of Education spokesperson — in a tough situation: making the most of a public education that’s designed for students who start and finish the year at the same school.

So when a lot of kids are on summer vacation, Angel is in a summer program for migrant students at the Manvel School. His big goal this summer is to complete Algebra One.

In a classroom with 14 other migrant students, Angel works through a packet by himself in preparation for a test. When I asked what he’s working on, he enthusiastically refreshed my memory of how to solve equations using order of operations.

It’s not that he didn’t pass Algebra One the first time; he’s working on getting ahead. Angel said back in seventh grade, his Texas school offered a test to get into the advanced math track, but he wasn’t back from North Dakota in time to take it.  

“And they called my name, but since I wasn't there they took me off the roster,” exclaimed Angel.  

It bothers Angel that he couldn’t take advanced math just because of his parents’ work. And the difficulties aren’t just in academics, but activities, too. He’d like to do something called the University Interscholastic League back in Texas.

“They’re like competitions for mathematics, science, history, spelling — pretty much every subject I would like to do, but since we can’t go over there in time I don’t have a chance to do that.”

Angel’s parents both grew up in farmworker families, and neither graduated high school. His mom made it to sixth grade when her dad asked her to work in the fields to help support the family.

Agricultural workers are among the country’s lowest annual earners according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Angel says his mom wishes she had been able to go to college so they wouldn’t have to migrate.

“She’s like, ‘I’m sorry that you have to do this. I know it hurts.’ She feels bad for me that we have to go back and forth,” said Angel. “That makes me feel lucky that I have the chance to educate myself.”

His older brother is already in college and Angel is confident that he’ll go too.

“I want to go to college. I don’t want to work in some random job to make ends meet. I want to make money, to live a nice life.”

Angel gets a lot of help from the Migrant Education Program, which funnels federal funds to states so they can provide academic support to kids whose parents move for agricultural and fisheries work. That can mean anything from summer programs, like the one in Manvel, to after-school tutoring to night classes in farmworker housing.

The program began in the 1960s, as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Department of Education doesn’t measure the graduation rate for migratory children, but advocates and educators estimate it was less than 10 percent when the program first started. They believe today’s rate is closer to 70 percent.  

Roger Rosenthal is executive director of the Migrant Legal Action Program. Since 1980, he’s worked to defend the rights of migrant students in public schools.

“This program fills in the gaps of what is necessary for these children to get their credits, finish school and fulfill their destiny.”

But not every community or every state has a program. Rhode Island, Connecticut and West Virginia haven’t had programs for years, and in 2017 Wyoming cancelled its programwhich is how I became interested in this story.

Like North Dakota, it was the sugar beet harvest that drew large numbers of migrant workers to Wyoming. But the invention of the Roundup Ready Beet reduced the need for labor, by allowing farmers to control for weed growth with chemicals.  

Fewer migrant workers means fewer migrant students, which was part of the reason Wyoming decided to decline federal funds and no longer run the program. The numbers have declined in North Dakota too, but Manvel has held onto its Migrant Education Program. And the federal dollars the school receives have done more than just help Angel and his peers.  

“Economically, it always made sense,” said Tom Ferry, a former Manvel school board member and a local farmer.  The federal funds employ teachers and bus drivers during the summer, and enhance school resources for all students throughout the year.

Ferry said the program has been good for farmers too, by drawing farmworker families to the area.

“Some of the work that the program did encouraged the people to come back.”

But the Migrant Education Program can’t help Angel get back to Texas in time for basketball season. Angel said his parents did give him the option to stay in Texas for the whole school year.

“I could stay with my aunts and my grandparents. I said I don’t want that. I won’t feel the same.”

He’d rather be close to his parents, but he’s hopeful that Mother Nature will bring an early end to this year’s beet harvest so he can get back to Texas in time to try out for the basketball team.

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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