How to help migrant children succeed

Cirenio "José" Rodríguez, Ph.D., is a professor of Educational Administration and Policy Studies, at California State University, Sacramento. His department offers graduate programs in educational leadership, helping train educators to become school principals, deans, superintendents and other administrators.

He is also the university's Bilingual (BILP) Cohort Coordinator, which involves helping prepare bilingual teachers in the K-12 school system become school administrators.

Dr. Rodríguez's personal background as a migrant child gives perspective to his professional pursuits. Dr. Rodríguez recently spoke with Colorín Colorado about his policy work in migrant education and how that work is rooted in his own experiences.

Meet José Rodríguez

What's the fundamental challenge in teaching migrant children?

The nature of migrating and moving comes down to the issue of continuity of education.

It depends on where you are, of course but usually there are either international or domestic migrant students.

Once a family establishes ties with a specific grower, they will return to that same community, so there is some stability in that. It always depends on the economy and weather, of course. They will always go where the work is.

How are the issues different for international and domestic migrant students?

International migrant students are those who return to Mexico every year. School starts in September, but these kids leave for Mexico in October and don't come back until March or April. They don't attend school in Mexico, and they've missed most of the school year here, so they're always behind.

And then teachers face a major problem. All of a sudden, they have a group of students come into the program, and they have to adjust the curriculum to meet their needs.

How do they adjust the curriculum without impacting the other students?

Fortunately, some of the districts have migrant programs. Migrant programs work with parents and kids both. There's usually an aide assigned to the class and resource teachers. Resource teachers might also provide programs during the summer, so that presents its own challenge. How do you articulate the summer curriculum with the school curriculum? You want to have continuity between them.

What about domestic migrant children?

If they are domestic migrants, if they come from Texas to California every year, for example, you need to work with the communities where they come from.

If the migrant programs in both home and host states can communicate with each other, they can coordinate better. They can work together to make sure the kids return to their home district and that they will enroll in school. The administrators know who these kids are and can track them better.

What kinds of strategies do you use to make sure kids enroll in school?

One of the things we've tried is to work with the parents to find permanent employment in the community and not move so much. That way they're already there and enrolled. Many migrant parents do want to get a better job, and if you can work with the local community to find jobs in agriculture programs or somewhere else, they will stay.

So you're talking about a holistic approach that reaches beyond the student and the school environment?

Yes. Migrant programs, in general, are about developing education programs for the whole family. We work with local training facilities, like community colleges, to help parents learn English so they can prepare to move from agriculture into higher paying jobs.

They're not going to move from farm worker to doctor in one day, of course, but migrant programs help expose parents to different careers, and that's one way of making sure that the kids get a better education.

When did you come to the United States?

I came in 1960, just before I was 14 years old. I came to the Los Angeles area where my parents were living. My father and mom came before we did. They left us with grandparents and then finally brought us. There were five of us when we came here, and then four more were born here.

My father had been coming on and off since the 1940s. He would come during the picking season and then come back home in the fall. He worked all the crops, grapes, tomatoes, avocadoes, oranges, whatever there was.

When we moved into the city, we became domestic migrants. In the summer we worked in the fields and in the winter we were in Los Angeles.

We always left before school ended. We didn't want to, but we always missed the end and beginning of the school year.

We would come to the labor camps to Northern California. We pretty much came to the same place every year. April 1 was the opening of the camp, and my father would be there on March 31 to claim a house, then my mom and the others would come.

Had you been in school in Mexico?

Not really. There was no school. I remember going in maybe kindergarten or first grade, but the teacher left two or three months into the year. It was a small village school and she had about 120 kids. I think she got scared and left. I had no other school experience other than that limited one with that teacher. We lived in small village with no running water or electricity. You get used to things like that.

Earning a Ph.D. is a long way to come from growing up in a village with no school. What motivated you?

I think part of it was my parents. The reason they brought us here was because my father realized that if we stayed in Mexico, we'd have no opportunity to improve ourselves, and he was looking for a better life like every immigrant family is.

He always valued education. Even though he never went to school much, he knew the basics of how to read and write and compute. My father and mother taught us how to read. They took it upon themselves to make sure that we were literate at least.

If your village didn't have a school, how did your parents learn to read?

I have a different twist in my family life. Both of my parents were U.S. citizens whose families had migrated to the United States during the Mexican war. Both my parents were born in Kansas.

During the 1930s, the bad economic times were blamed on the Mexicans and over half a million were deported. My grandparents suddenly found themselves repatriated into Mexico.

My parents had gone to school here. Not for long, my mom was just beginning school, but enough for them to know what it was. People always ask 'how did you learn to read?' My parents taught us whatever they knew. They knew the ABCs and a little bit more. I became an avid reader when I was a young kid. And I read in my primary language, Spanish.

How did your parents encourage your reading?

My dad would buy me comic books as much as he could, and I got introduced to literature through comics. It may not have been great literature, but it was reading.

So when I came here, I knew the basics of reading in my primary language. I came to this country with my own identity and had developed my own reading skills. I began to try and make sense of reading in English.

It was a slow process, but since I already knew how to read in Spanish, the literacy skills I had, even though they were limited, helped me to learn to read in English. It didn't happen automatically, but it happened over time.

If I had been one of the thousands and thousands of children who were learning in English without the literacy skills that I had, I don't know how I would have learned.

Where do you start with the thousands of children who are learning to read in a new language?

One of the things people need to figure out is, what do they know? What knowledge do they have already? They don't come into the classroom an empty vessel.

How do you assess what they already know?

You begin by asking questions and meeting the parents. I would approach it with an assumption that the kids are coming with some skills and knowledge. The migrant and resource teachers can help find out. Then you ask, how do you value their prior knowledge?

You also have to get the parents involved and reach out to them. If all the parent knows is Spanish, you make sure the parents read to them in Spanish. The idea is to expose them to the written word, even if it's Spanish, it's still valuable.

What if the parents don't read even in Spanish?

Hopefully the parent, through the involvement of the school system, will start going to school at night. That's going to impact the child, too, because that says something about how important it is.

A lot of your strategies seem to involve the whole family.

Yes, exactly. It's not just about the child, but the family as a whole. To best help the child, help the family to integrate into the community. Most parents want to improve and progress in society, and they need the knowledge of resources in the area.

So as an administrator, you need to find out what the needs of the parents are and what resources are available to meet those needs. When training administrators, I always ask, how do you get the parents to come to school? The parents have to be involved because you can't do it alone.

How do you suggest that new administrators get parents to come to the school?

In most immigrant communities, there are community-based advocacy groups, and teachers and administrators need to find them and form partnerships. These groups have resources that can help.

Try to link up with other migrant programs. One of the critical resources is in health care. If the child isn't healthy, they're not going to learn. Have a health screening day at the school.

Invite the Welfare department or unemployment office or employment agencies to come. There are all kinds of nonprofit and government agencies that can be helpful to your families.

Knowing what your community resources are can make it easier to educate the children, so find out what's in the community that can be helpful in doing your job.

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