Gregoria Nava drives down a narrow lane through an apple orchard to a small cluster of migrant worker cabins. She’s come here on a mission: to persuade a teen mother to return to high school and get her diploma. As a paraprofessional for Kenowa Hills Public Schools, it’s Nava’s job to enroll migrant students who live in more than a dozen area camps during the harvest season.
“I’m here to see the baby!” Nava calls out to Adelene Acevedo, 17, who strolls up sipping from a soda cup. “She doesn’t come till 4:30,” replies Adelene, whose 4-month-old daughter, Jasmin, is in day care.
Nava doesn’t beat around the bush. She tells Adelene, who dropped out of her hometown school in Florida last year, that she should return to classes at Kenowa this fall. “I know you wanted to try online classes but I think you should try the traditional way for now, honey,” she tells Adelene outside her family’s small home.
“Yes, I’m going back to school,” Adelene says. “OK,” Nava says, “let’s get youenrolled, and your brother.” They head inside and Nava opens up her laptop.
Chalk up a small win for Nava in her annual push to enroll the students of area migrant workers. Between 120 and 150 migrant students attend Kenowa schools each fall before returning South with their families.
For her, helping students like Adelene is a passion. “I want to make a difference in this kid’s life,” she says.
Following Families into the Fields
Nava also makes a difference by helping students and their families with needed services like translation, transportation, healthcare and filling out forms. Now in her 17th year, she provides bilingual services to students at both Kenowa Hills and Comstock Park schools in addition to recruiting migrant students for Kenowa.
From her office at Alpine Elementary School, Nava helps students with class work. At this time of year, though, she drives her silver Saturn hatchback over rolling farmland into the camps where they live. She visits late into the evening and on weekends, and has been known to walk into the fields in high heels to get a needed piece of paperwork signed by a parent.
Her first task is to enforce the law, which requires all students under age 18 to be enrolled in school. That’s easier said than done. Some older students would rather work full-time in the orchards to raise more money for the family, she says. Students 14 and older are only allowed to work after school, but economic necessity often forces younger children into the fields, researchers say. Their mobility and lack of continuity contribute to a national dropout rate of migrant students estimated by a Human Rights Watch study at 45 percent.
Their parents value education, Nava says, but many don’t know the law and never finished elementary school. Still, it’s not unusual for parents to ask her to pick their children up for school because they missed the bus. “My phone is ringing a lot in the fall,” she says.
From the Camps to College
“I know how these kids feel,” says Nava, the mother of four children. “I can really relate to their background.” A native of Mexico who moved to the U.S. at 18, she identifies with their struggles. That includes children whose parents are here illegally but are still required by law to be in school. “The better education they have, the better the community will be.” Most of Kenowa’s migrant students come from Florida or other Southern states and are fluent in English, but their parents are not.
She has planted roots of support in some students nearly as deep as the apple trees their families pick. Esbeydy Villegas, a freshman studying criminal justice at Michigan State University, has known Nava since she was a kindergartener. She calls her “a huge inspiration in the migrant community.”
“Gregoria has been such a huge help,” Esbeydy wrote by email. “She is there to provide support, advice and to give a helping hand to anyone who needs it. Her words and kind personality are what always got students such as myself through tough times.”
For Nava, helping to enroll Esbeydy in college kind of sums up her work. “I’m so proud of her,” she says. “It’s just amazing to see those things.”
‘This is Hard for Kids’
Back at the migrant camp where Adelene Acevedo lives, Nava types enrollment information into her laptop at the family’s kitchen table. It is tedious detail work, taking Nava more than an hour. She keeps up a running conversation in Spanish with Adelene’s mother, Irma Leon, while also registering her brother, Isael, 13. She is light and easy with them.
But Adelene does not look happy after Nava tells Isael they will be issued Chromebook computers again. Adelene says she couldn’t do her homework last year because she couldn’t get online.
“They think everybody has Internet access, but we don’t,” Adelene says. “We live in the middle of nowhere. That made it even harder for me in school.”
Nava promises to talk to the principal about it, adding, “We really need you guys to speak up.” Counters Adelene, “We’re Hispanic and they’re not going to take us seriously. Because it’s just like a season and we’re going to leave.”
Nava insists she will work on the problem, adding, “We want to find ways to help you guys and make sure you get the support you need. You guys have my cell phone. You can always call me.”
Later, Nava says she understands the frustrations of Adelene and other migrant students. “They feel left out, they feel excluded. This is hard for the kids.”
Despite her complaints, Adelene says she appreciates Nava’s help and that she intends to graduate: “I think it would be better for me if I finished school because I won’t be under the hot sun.”
Afterward, Irma hands Nava a big bowl of fresh blueberries to thank her. It’s important for her kids to get an education, she says, because “I don’t want to see my children working in the same type of work” as she and her husband do.
Such affirmations motivate Nava to keep doing what she does.
“I really want these kids to get a higher education,” she says, “and I think they know that.”