Migrants, Education of

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Anyone who has marveled at the amazing variety of fresh produce and canned and frozen foods in most U.S. supermarkets can thank a migrant farm worker for this bounty. In spite of increased mechanization of agricultural work, seasonal labor continues to be required for the cultivation and harvest of fruits and vegetables. The dairy and fishing industries are also reliant on seasonal migrant labor.

Unfortunately the children of migrant agricultural workers are among the most educationally disadvantaged children in the United States. The conditions associated with their migratory lifestyle, such as discontinuity in education, social and cultural isolation, strenuous work outside of school, extreme poverty, and poor health, impose multiple obstacles to educational success. Limited proficiency in English may be an additional educational burden. Schools coping with temporary seasonal increases in enrollment can face significant challenges in addressing the migrant students' unique educational needs. Many schools serving migrant students are small schools located in rural areas, often with limited staff and resources.

Migrant students reside in all states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. It is difficult to know the exact number of migrant children in a state at a given point in time, since migrant farmworkers and their families often move across state and national boundaries. In 2000 the U.S. Department of Education counted approximately 800,000 migrant children in U.S. schools. Close to half of these children attend schools in California and Texas; and ten other statesArizona, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and Washingtonaccount for nearly one-third of migrant students.

Migrant Families

The life of migrating families is in many ways distinct from mainstream America. Each year migrant families travel to remote parts of the country seeking employment in highly uncertain labor markets to work under strenuous and often hazardous conditions. Most migrant workers were born outside the United States, and many have difficulty speaking English. Due to the extreme economic conditions of migrant life, children often must take on work and family responsibilities at a young age, sometimes to the detriment of school attendance. In addition working in the fields exposes migrant students to a variety of health risks, such as accidental injury or exposure to pesticides.

About two-thirds of migrant students come from families where earnings are below the poverty level. The cost of migrating is high, and it is common for migrants to arrive at a new destination with little or no money or food. Living conditions are cramped and substandardcamp housing units often consist of one small room for each family that serves for cooking, eating, and sleeping. Many migrant students suffer educational disadvantages stemming from poverty and poverty-related health problems that can directly affect school performance, such as malnutrition, parasitic infections, and chronic illness.

The typical migrant adult has received less than seven years of formal schooling. Most were schooled in their home country, and are unfamiliar with the American educational system. As in many homes where the adult literacy level is low, children are less likely to be exposed to books, magazines, and other print media that promote early literacy and school readiness. Nonetheless, migrant parents, like all parents, see education as a path to a better life and place a high value on their children's education.

While migrant families may consider school quality, among other factors, when moving, decisions about where and when to relocate are ultimately based on economic necessity. Migrants must weigh such factors as the length of seasons, changes in crop conditions, demand for labor, wages, and housing availability. Migrants tend to follow the crops from south to north in the spring and then back south in the fall. Since the pattern of enrollment for migrant children is generally one of late entry in the fall and early withdrawal in the spring, migrant students are often unable to complete a school term.

In terms of ethnicity, the population of agricultural workers is overwhelmingly of Hispanic origin. More than three-quarters of workers are Mexicanborn. Not surprisingly, the great majority (84%) of migrant workers are native Spanish speakers; only 12 percent are native English speakers. About 80 percent of migrant children are likely to live in a home where no English is spoken, so many arrive in schools unable to comprehend the language of instruction.

School Programs for Migrant Students

While the specific services available to migrant students in schools can vary widely, all programs address the identification and recruitment of migrant students, their assessment and placement, and the coordination of services.

School services for migrant students start with their identification or recruitment. Identification is the process by which children already enrolled in school are identified by staff as migratory, and therefore eligible for supplementary services. Recruitment refers to the process of bringing nonenrolled school-age migrant children into the school system. Migrant specialists hired by the school district or state usually perform student recruitment. Recruiters also act as ambassadors, welcoming students into the school system and serving as a conduit of information between migrant parents and schools.

Once a migrant student is enrolled, the school must determine if the regular school program will be sufficient, or if additional services are required. In many cases formal assessments must be administered to determine language proficiency, grade-level placement, and the need for special education services. School staff, or a migrant liaison, will communicate with the family about the child's educational and health history. If the students' prior school and medical records are available, this greatly expedites the placement process and avoids needless educational delays and interruptions. For secondary students, the consequences of delayed placement can be particularly high, as they may fail to accrue the credits needed for graduation.

In states and districts with a predictably high migrant population, schools may offer well-coordinated programs and services that target their specific needs. In other areas, service coordination and academic programs may be deficient or lacking entirely. Students migrating during the academic year might experience both environments. Quality programs for migrant students generally include a number of features to help them overcome educational disruption, cultural and language barriers, social isolation, and health-related problems. These features include:

  • Enhanced reading and math instruction.
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) and/or bilingual instruction.
  • Tutoring.
  • Classroom aides.
  • Summer programs.
  • Guidance and counseling.
  • Parent outreach.
  • Social work.
  • Clothing.
  • Nutrition.
  • Transportation.
  • Dental and medical services.
  • Accommodations for enrollment, credit accrual, and transfer.

Transitional centers, sometimes called Newcomer Centers, may exist in districts with high numbers of immigrant and migrant students. Aimed at secondary students, these centers undertake a comprehensive assessment of incoming student needs and offer specialized classes designed to facilitate transition to regular classrooms. Most newcomer programs are set apart from the regular schools and focus on providing intensive English language instruction and developing basic literacy for students with limited formal schooling. The centers also help students develop study skills, and they familiarize new students and their families with the schools' expectations and protocols.

Another type of comprehensive program is known as a schoolwide, or whole-school, program. Rather than separate students out for specialized instruction, schools with schoolwide programs have reformed their entire regular educational program and incorporated a variety of health and other services to improve achievement for all students. Approximately 20 percent of migrant students are served in schoolwide programs.

When the small numbers of migrants or limited resources may prevent the implementation of a comprehensive program, many schools concentrate available resources on a few of the program features listed above. Programs may focus on supplementary and remedial instruction, generally in reading, math, or ESL, through specialized classes either during the school day or after school. Other schools may rely on bilingual aides to help students keep up in the regular classroom, or on migrant advocates/liaisons to help migrant families understand and access the services available to them. In several states most or all of the special educational services for migrant students are provided through summer educational programs.

In the Classroom

Services for migrants may be provided by specialized personnel such as bilingual instructors, remedial instructors, counselors, or summer school teachers, but regular classroom teachers play a critical role in helping migrant students thrive. The literature on migrant education repeatedly emphasizes the importance of: (1) building on the strengths and experiences migrant students bring to the classroom, (2) establishing a positive learning environment where the diversity among students is acknowledged and celebrated, and (3) allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways.

It is important for teachers and aides to have an open communication with migrant students about their prior educational and life experiences so they can build on what the student already knows. For example, students who have worked in the fields will have knowledge of nature and agriculture, which can be a starting point for learning in science. If the student has been learning in his or her home language, a teacher can capitalize on that skill; either by using the native language or by locating supplementary native language materials to reinforce material presented in English.

Easing the transition of migrant students to a new school is crucial, especially when the student is a late starter. A student who feels disoriented or un-welcome will have difficulty learning. Teachers can reduce anxieties and avoid difficulties by clearly explaining the everyday routines and policies within the school. Students new to U.S. schools may be completely unfamiliar with elements of school that seem commonplace to most American school kids, such as hall passes, school bells, changing classes, gym, cafeterias and lunch lines, lockers, holidays, and disciplinary methods. Using cooperative groups or assigning classroom "buddies" for new students can help the students to adapt and begin to feel more at home. Teachers of migrant students need to be attentive to warning signs. When new students are withdrawn, aggressive, or over-talkative, these may be indicative of adjustment problems rather than general behavior problems.

Teachers may also take advantage of professional development opportunities to enhance classroom techniques for working with diverse learners. Effective schooling research suggests strategies to promote excellence for all students. These include maintaining high expectations, personalized contact and smaller classroom size, and providing opportunities for students to demonstrate initiative, competence, and responsibility.

National and State Programs

Most programs for migrant students receive funding through the U.S. Department of Education's Migrant Education Program (MEP). Federal MEP funds are allocated to states based on the number of migrant students and the state's average per-pupil expenditure. Since its inception in 1966, the MEP has supported school-based supplementary educational programs, tutoring services, school- and community-based health services, parent involvement and family literacy programs, summer enrichment programs, and professional development for teachers. The MEP also maintains a toll-free nationwide Migrant Education Hotline that families can use to reach the nearest migrant program.

Funding from several smaller federal grant programs also reaches many migrant students. Migrant Head Start (MHS) provides comprehensive pre-school and daycare programs. The Migrant Education Even Start (MEES) program helps migrant families break the cycles of poverty and illiteracy through programs for early childhood education, adult basic education, and parent education. The High School Equivalency Program (HEP) provides grants to colleges, universities, and community organizations to help migrants obtain a General Educational Development Diploma (GED) and prepare them for college or the workplace. College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) grants help colleges and universities provide financial and academic assistance to migrant students in their first year.

In the absence of a national system to transfer migrant student records between schools, states have developed intrastate and regional interstate databases to track and transfer student records, and also to share curriculum materials. By facilitating timely identification and appropriate placement of students, these information-sharing consortia play a critical role in reducing the educational disruption experienced by migrant youth. Many states share student information, as well as teachers and textbooks, with schools in Mexico though the Binational Migrant Education Program. Multistate programs, such as the Portable Assisted Study Sequence (PASS), which is used in thirty-one states, help secondary migrant students meet graduation requirements by allowing students to complete their coursework semi-independently through correspondence study. Newer state and regional programs have adapted the PASS model to enable mobile students to complete coursework though the Internet.

Issues and Trends

Many millions of migrant children have benefited from the work of federal agencies, states, and schools to expand educational opportunities and open the way for a better future. Still, very little is known about how well these programs and services are working. Due to the high mobility of the population, different record-keeping among the states, and the absence of a national tracking system, program administrators have limited means of determining the impact of a program or a schedule of services on a particular migrant child. Establishing a workable, efficient, secure, nationwide system of tracking migrant student records and progress remains the central challenge for the migrant education community. A centralized information system would help minimize disruptions caused by placement delays, and would also permit meaningful assessment of educational outcomes. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January 2002, calls for an expanded federal role in the development of a national system of records transfer.

Since the early 1990s, education reform has tended to focus on the setting of high education standards and the development of standards-based curricula and assessments. As more and more states are requiring that all students be included in statewide assessments, it is likely that more data on migrant student achievement will become available. Students migrating within a state may benefit from having consistent curricula and clearly defined goals and improved documentation of their progress.

While instruction by video and correspondence remain widely used distance-education tools in migrant programs, the benefits of Internet technology are also beginning to reach migrant students. Some programs allow students to complete coursework online and take advantage of Internet-based distance learning. Migrant educators are creating innovative ways of using new technologies to enhance the continuity of learning; for example, the Estrella program, based in Texas, provides students with laptop computers and modems to help them keep up with course work while away from their home district.

Helping migrant students overcome multiple barriers to success poses a tremendous challenge to teachers, migrant advocates, schools, and families. The mission for all members of the migrant education community is to ensure that students' cumulative educational experiencesin spite of obstacles, moves, and changeslead them toward success.

See also: Bilingualism, Second Language Learning, and English as a Second Language; Poverty and Education; Rural Education.


Di Cerbo, Patricia A. 2001. Why Migrant Education Matters. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Leblanc Flores J., ed. 1997. Children of la Frontera: Binational Efforts to Serve Mexican Migrant and Immigrant Students. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.

Mehta, Kala, et al. 2000. Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 19971998: A Demographic and Employment Portrait of United States Farm Workers. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor.

Perry, John D. 1997. Migrant Education: Thirty Years of Success, but Challenges Remain. Providence, RI: The Education Alliance.

Prewitt-Diaz, Joseph O.; Trotter, Robert T.; and Rivera, Vidal A. 1989. The Effects of Migration on Children: An Ethnographic Study. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Department of Education, Division of Migrant Education.

Romo, Harriet D. 1999. Reaching Out: Best Practices for Educating Mexican-Origin Children and Youth. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.

U.S. Department of Education. 1999. Meeting the Needs of Migrant Students in Schoolwide Programs. Rockville, MD: Westat.

internet resources

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Anneka L. Kindler

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