It’s harvest season for peas and peaches, among other North State crops, and thousands of migrant farmworkers have come to the area to work in the fields for the season. They’ll stay until November, and many bring their families with them. NSPR reporter Adia White tells us how Williams Unified School District is adapting to their nomadic lifestyle to help students graduate.
For most students, school is out for the summer, but for the North State’s migrants, it’s just getting started.
Williams Unified School District is home to a summer school program that unlike most, isn’t supplementary. For many students, it’s the difference between dropping out of high school and finishing college.
“The first day of school is shoveling kids around — lots of kids were absent today,” Assistant Superintendent Maria Espinoza said.
In order to enroll in this summer school, you have to qualify as migrant, meaning your family works in agriculture and they move out of the school district mid-school year to follow the harvest. There are over a thousand migrant students in the North State, and this program is one of the ways school districts are able to keep them from falling behind.
Nicholas Richter is the vice principal of the Summer School Academy in Williams. The typical migrant student in the North State area, he tells me, will start the school year in September, leave just before finals around November, then return to school again in April, just before the end of the semester.
“A lot times the students are starting their school year with us, then leaving and returning at the end of the semester,” he said. “So if we’re lucky it’s only two different schools, but it’s three changes.”
Through outreach programs, the Williams School District tries to convince families to stay in the area until the end of the semester, but for some, sticking around isn’t an option. Many migrants living in the area rent in the state-run subsidized housing center. The state center closes at the end of November, and after that, families don’t have anywhere else to live.
“It’s about housing” Richter said. “It’s all about housing. If we could find other ways to provide that low-cost housing then we could get families to stay.”
In the meantime, each school district does their best to grade students who haven’t completed the semester. Then, when they return in the spring, they do what they can to transfer their credits from their second school, which in many cases, are in Mexico.
“We accept their transcripts from Mexico,” Richter said. “We will try to take their transcripts from Mexico and translate that to our system.”
Sometimes even bigger problems arise, like the students who don’t even go to school during the time they’ve been away.
“In Mexico the schooling isn’t mandatory,” he says. “They’ll be required to go until 8th, then you pay. There’s no free education after that.”
Given the challenges, it’s not surprising that 20 percent of California's migrant students won’t graduate high school. Even fewer of those students will make it to college. But Williams Unified is a bit of an anomaly.
Edgar Lampkin is the district's superintendent.
“This year we had a 100 percent graduation rate,” he said.
When you look at the data, you can’t tease out the migrants students from the overall 96.5 percent graduation rate, but there are 153 migrants students in the K-12 district, and Lampkin says all the migrant seniors did finish.
He credits their high graduation rate in part to the fact that those involved in the program understand what students are going through.
“We know this program for migrants works because we were those kids,” Lamkin said. “I came to this country as an 8-year-old immigrant. My mom came to work in agriculture. I got here on a Saturday, went to the store, got clothes and food and then Monday I was out working in the fields.”
Lampkin was a rarity among his peers. He graduated from Chico State with a degree in education, and went on to become a school superintendent.
“I always wondered why my friends dropped out of school so early, some of them in 8th grade, some of them in 9th grade, but by 10th grade it was just me,” he said.
The assistant superintendent, Maria Espinoza, is also a former migrant student. She’s focused her efforts on educating parents about the value of sending their kids to school instead of to work during the summer.
“For me, when I wanted to go to college, my dad said no, because I was a girl,” she said. “He was like, ‘No you’re a girl. We’re very traditional. Girls stay home.’ Female migrants stay home.”
Migrant students are still one of the poorest performing demographics statewide, but they are also one of the most rapidly improving. In Williams’ case, that’s partly because people like Espinoza and Lampkin, are using their personal experiences and challenges to make the path a little easier for the next generation.