Migrant Students: What We Need to Know to Help Them Succeed

It was almost twenty years ago that I had my first encounter with migrant students and the world of migrant education. I had just graduated from college and got a job with The Close Up Foundation, a non-profit organization that promoted civic involvement and the study of democracy. The foundation provided a civics and social studies curriculum and materials for middle- and high school teachers to implement in their classes throughout the year. My particular program was targeted to English language learners (ELLs) who were immigrant and/or migrant students.

Through this job, I worked with ESL/ESOL teachers of migrant students and administrators of the Migrant Education Program (MEP)1 all over the country. I found them to be tireless advocates and passionate in their efforts to teach and serve their students, and learned immensely about migrant families and the educators who work with them. I hope some of those lessons shared in this article will provide a helpful context for educators who work with this unique population of students. These experiences opened my eyes to a reality I was unaware of, and inspired my subsequent work in education throughout all these years.

The historical background, issues, context, and data about migrant students are all too numerous and complex to explore in depth in this article. What follows is a snapshot of current demographics, academic achievement data, a discussion of some of the other challenges these students confront as well as promising programs, and some recommendations for educators with migrant students in their classrooms to help them succeed. Additionally, at the end of the article, there is a listing of recommended resources for further information.

Who Are Migrant Children?

Migrant children2 served by the MEP are children and youth ages 0-213 whose families work in the agricultural and/or fisheries industries and who will often move across districts and state lines several times within a 12-36 month period of time, following the various crops by season. It is not unusual for children to also work in the fields, alongside their families, when they're not in school and even during the school year.

How many?

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education (for the 2007-08 school year) shows that in 49 states, the MEP served a total of 485,340 students in preschool through 12th grade during the regular school year and an additional 164,667 during the summer.

Where are they?

Every state, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, has migrant students. California, Texas, Florida, Washington, and Oregon serve the most migrant students, with California serving close to 34 percent of the nationwide total (CDE, 2007).

What is their background?

Nationwide, it is estimated that 90 percent of migrant children are of Latino origin, and that 34 percent are ELLs.

Challenges for migrant families

Sixteen years ago, the National Commission on Migrant Education (NCME) released its breakthrough report on the condition of education for school-age migrant children and youth. While there have been improvements, many of the Commission's startling findings still ring true today. At the time the NCME released its report, its findings included the following risk factors (Martinez et al, 1994):

  • Physical hazards

    Migrant farmworkers have one of the most labor-intensive, physically-demanding, often hazardous yet grossly undercompensated occupations in the country

  • Isolation

    Migrant families tend to live in isolation from the communities where they work

  • Family separation

    It is not uncommon for parents and children to be separated if parents want the children to finish the school year in the same school while they move on to the next work site

  • Socioeconomic disadvantages

    Migrant children experience more acute poverty, health problems, health hazards, social alienation, educational disadvantages, mobility and lack of educational opportunities than any other major school population segment

  • Educational background

    Migrant parents have the lowest levels of educational attainment of any occupational group

  • Language

    Large numbers of migrant students lack English language proficiency (even though most are U.S. citizens) and/or require remedial instruction

  • Graduation rates

    Migrant children have one of the highest dropout rates in the nation

  • Program support

    Federally-funded programs for migrant children are not sufficiently funded to meet the children's needs

Many migrant farmworkers in Florida will only earn $2.50 per large bucket of peanuts, and they can expect to fill some 10 buckets per person after a long 10-12 hour day.

Poverty, low wages, deplorable and unsafe living/working conditions, interrupted schooling, lack of social mobility and lack of educational opportunities still plague migrant families. Migrant farmworkers still toil long hours in the fields and most live well below the poverty level (Education Week, 2009; LaCroix, 2007; Franquiz et al, 2004).

There are generally no health insurance benefits, paid leave, pensions, workers' compensation benefits, overtime pay, life insurance or other benefits for migrant workers and their families (Branz-Spall et al, 2003).


Barriers to Achievement

Given these challenges, it is not surprising that most migrant students face multiple barriers to academic achievement, high school completion, and post-secondary attainment. Researchers, experts and advocates (NCBE, 2001; Kindler, 2002; Branz-Spall et al, 2003; Fránquiz & Salinas, 2004; LaCroix, 2007; USDE, 2006; NCES, 2010) have identified some of the following factors as key challenges jeopardizing migrant students' chances to excel academically and later in life:

These include a lack of:

  • Access to fully-qualified or adequately prepared teachers and staff
  • Enrollment in rigorous, college preparatory coursework
  • Participation in challenging grade-level content coursework if students are ELLs
  • Resources for unmet instructional needs
  • Knowledge about and access to information on higher education or post-secondary vocational options

Other challenges include:

  • Disproportionate attendance at high-needs schools with high concentrations of children who are poor and/or who are ELLs
  • Large gaps in missed instructional and assessment time
  • Missed time and lack of continuity while adjusting to different academic standards, curriculum, expectations, instructional programs, and school environments every time they move
  • Being overage in many cases, yet not being able to perform at grade level due to interrupted schooling, late-entry into the country, lack of exposure to high-quality early childhood education prior to Kindergarten
  • Difficulty keeping track of high school credits earned for graduation if students attend multiple schools in different states

Graduation rates

One of the most pernicious results of all these impediments is the unacceptably large number of students who drop out. Most of these students will not continue their education, which means they will remain in poverty and marginalized from the communities in which they live. While it is challenging to determine an exact nationwide dropout rate due to inconsistent record-keeping and tracking, different state formulas for calculating dropouts, and other data gathering challenges in trying to follow cohorts of students, all nationwide estimates for the migrant high school dropout rate are exceptionally high.

Some range between 45 and 65 percent for high school (NCES, 2001) to 87 percent for all school-aged migrant children, according to the 2002-2003 National Agricultural Workers Survey (NCES, 2010). Recent individual state data on migrant dropouts reveal equally alarming numbers. In California, the state with the highest number of migrant students, the dropout rate is estimated to be above 50 percent (CDE, 2007; USDE, 2006).

Current estimates for the high school graduation rate of migrant students nationwide are equally difficult to establish. One research review found that the graduation rate was between 10 and 20 percent (Lunon, 1986).

Academic achievement

On state assessments of reading and math, migrant students score well below their mainstream peers. Indeed, as Table 1 shows, in the five states with the highest migrant student enrollments, the percentage of 8th grade migrant students scoring at the proficient or above level is less than 50 percent in most cases. For those students who do not score at the proficient or above level, there is often a gap of 25 percentage points or higher.

TABLE 1: Percent of Students Scoring Proficient or Above on 2005-06 State Math and English Language Arts (ELA) Assessments

 Migrant StudentsAll StudentsLow-Income Students
8th Grade ELA
8th Grade MATH


Age and grade gaps

It is not uncommon for migrant students to be at least one year older than their peers, and be at least half a year behind — this is especially true for those migrant students who are also ELLs. It is common knowledge that as students fall behind more and more, they give up the struggle to catch up and end up leaving school before they even reach the 11th or 12th grades.

Upheaval and disruption

In addition to the barriers to educational achievement outlined above, many migrant children are subjected to the harmful disruptions of:

  • Moving in the middle of a school year
  • Navigating a new school system and environment multiple times in a school year
  • Not having an adequate living space to focus on their studies
  • Being physically far away from the resources of the school and the community afterhours and on weekends
  • Being separated from family members, teachers, and friends they have gotten to know and trust when they have to move
  • Being exposed to numerous hazards when they are working in the fields (lack of safety equipment and gear, pesticides, insecticides, heavy equipment and machinery, toxic fumes, insects, inclement weather, etc.)


Promising Programs

Despite the myriad difficulties that besiege migrant children and their families, scores of them have been successful and have overcome the odds thanks to the joint and coordinated efforts of targeted programs. Their resiliency also comes as a result of their own efforts, as well as the support and encouragement from family, schools, teachers, administrators, community organizers, advocates, foundations, etc. who have instilled in these students the belief that they can rise above their circumstances.

In addition to the Migrant Education Program, these other federally funded programs set up around the country to address the needs of migrant students have the widest reach:

  • The High School Equivalency Program (HEP) was established in 1967. HEP works with students who have dropped out of school to get them to acquire their general education diploma or GED. It reaches more than 7,000 students every year.
  • The College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) was established in 1972. CAMP works with students in their first year of college and helps them with academics, personal issues, and offers financial assistance. Approximately 2,400 migrant students participate annually. Close to 75 percent of all CAMP students graduate with a bachelor's degree.
  • Seasonal and Migrant Head Start serves children of migrant and seasonal farm workers who meet income and other eligibility guidelines. Services are for children from six-months to five-years of age. Because of the nature of the work done by the families, the hours of services are longer and the length of program is shorter (fewer months) than traditional Head Start services. It serves close to 35,000 children in 38 states.

There are also smaller, innovative programs that have been developed with Title I Part C funding that focus at the state and district level on dropout prevention, parent involvement, and after school programs. One such program that is well-know is the state consortia-led effort Project SMART (Summer Migrants Access Resources through Technology), which offers distance learning, enriched, engaging coursework, tutoring, televised instructional shows, and videotaped instruction. It was originally piloted in Montana and Texas, but currently operates in 16 states.

Some states like Florida and Montana also have laptop loan programs for migrant students so that they can keep up with their schoolwork, have access to online coursework and/or instructional information on core academic content, and stay connected to the teachers and program staff they have had contact with in the schools where they have been enrolled.


Strategies for Success

What can educators do in the classroom to meet the needs of their migrant students, especially those who are ELLs? Some helpful ideas include:

Welcoming students and families

  • Creating a positive and welcoming classroom environment by modeling respect for differences, and sharing experiences and values
  • Reaching out to the families of migrant students and help them become familiarized and comfortable with the school their children currently attend
  • Creating a list of helpful social service resources and advocacy organizations that families can call on

Encouraging academic success

  • Implementing research-based methods on effective instruction for linguistically and culturally diverse student populations into classroom practice
  • Exposing students to the more academically rigorous coursework and content that mainstream students have access to
  • Holding students to high expectations
  • Using cooperative learning strategies

Increasing collaboration and professional development

  • Reaching out to mainstream colleagues to get their assistance in teaching core content to students
  • Reaching out to colleagues at the school or via social networking sites to share best practices, resources, tools, information, etc. and not feel isolated

Encouraging future educational participation

  • Making sure that families of migrant students know what to do to navigate the system better once they are ready to move on
  • Urging students to continue their schooling, keeping in mind the particularly challenging situations of each student, and making appropriate referrals to other staff and/or community-based organizations whenever possible
  • Encouraging students to establish electronic mail "pen-pal" relationships with migrant students when they leave the school so that a sense of continuity and the security of familiarity can be established

When teachers, parents, administrators, the community, and other advocates work in concert to share best practices, communicate to each other and the community at large how important and necessary it is to pay particular attention to the needs of this population, and work closely with the children toward specific outcomes, migrant students greatly benefit.


Policy Recommendations

As important as the previously mentioned recommendations, strategies and lessons are for our schools to try and implement, teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, school principals and other school staff can not do it alone. To better meet the needs of our migrant students, it is critical that we call attention to their plight and urge our nation's leaders to act in the following areas:

  • Dropout prevention and continuing education

    Call for the widespread implementation and strengthening of dropout prevention programs, as well as programs that reach out to "out of school" youth-students with interrupted formal schooling or no prior formal schooling who may have never been enrolled in U.S. schools

    Call for better outreach to school dropouts to return to school or enroll in high school equivalency or GED programs

  • Social services

    Call for the provision of more 'wraparound' social services for migrant families such as health screenings, nutrition counseling, child care referrals, pre-natal care, mental health services referrals

  • Collaboration

    Call for more targeted, concerted efforts between states, community-based organizations, districts, and schools to better coordinate efforts to meet the needs of migrant students without duplicating efforts

  • Child protection

    Enact legislation or enforce laws prohibiting children from working in the fields such as the CARE Act4

  • Intervention

    Commission and fund evaluations of intervention programs that specifically target migrant students to then disseminate best practices

  • Professional development

    Advocate for stronger, more widely available professional development programs for teachers and school staff on effective instruction for migrant students who are English language learners

  • Best practices

    Continue to help resource-poor schools improve and promote school improvement strategies that work

  • Student data tracking

    Provide adequate funding for better, more accurate tracking systems

  • Early childhood education

    Fund and implement more early childhood care and education programs for migrant infants, toddlers and preschoolers

  • Adult and parent education

    Promote adult education and parent involvement programs

We must recognize and respect the important and numerous contributions of migrant families to the country's economy, culture, and diversity. An informed, active citizenry and an educated workforce are the pillars of our democracy and our economy, and so we must engage in a concerted effort to address the many and significant challenges keeping too many of our migrant students from reaching their potential. We must look forward to telling a different story twenty years from now.


Giselle Lundy-Ponce is an education policy and research analyst with the American Federation of Teachers.

Special thanks to Roger Rosenthal, Executive Director of the Migrant Legal Action Program, for his review of this article.


You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact info@colorincolorado.org.

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