While scores of area children can be heard frolicking in the summer sun, an all together different buzz resonates inside the district’s middle school classrooms.
It’s the sound of migrant parents’ children working out a math problem at the white board. It’s the hum of them expanding their vocabulary. It’s the clack of laptop keyboards to broaden their technological boundaries.
In the end, the work those 280-plus registered migrant students are accomplishing is intended to overcome educational gaps created when migrant families move from one work site to another to follow seasonal crops, often during the school year.
Too often, frequent moves and frequent absences mean migrant students often fall behind academically, said Jeremy Smith, director of Kent City Community Schools’ Summer Migrant Education Program. This is why Kent City’s summer program is vital to their learning, he said. The six-week pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade initiative includes children from Kent City as well as Sparta, Kenowa Hills, Coopersville and Ravenna.
“They don’t have choices if they don’t have options,” Smith said.
West Michigan’s Migrant Draw
Many migrant workers are drawn to West Michigan because of a geographical area known as the Fruit Ridge, which includes Kent City.
The area — approximately eight miles wide and 20 miles long, covering 158 square miles in portions of Kent, Newaygo, Muskegon and Ottawa counties — is a prime fruit-growing region known particularly for its apple and blueberry production.
It’s a work life where parents’ 15-hour workdays are common, and moving from state-to-state is a given, Smith said. Children often lend a hand as well, when time allows. Most of the children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English.
“Most of our students are from Florida and Texas,” Smith said. “Some of our families go to North Carolina and end up here in the summer. Some can move five times a year, which creates gaps in their learning and causes them to fall behind. We’re here to mitigate the gaps and help them stay on their grade level and see them graduate. A lot of families come to the same camps year after year and back to the same growers.”
“We give them an opportunity and the skills so they can eventually when they’re older go out and do something different,” added Smith. “That’s the heart of the whole program.”
Meeting the Challenge
Sixth-grader Elida Villegas is a shining example of what Smith desires to see other students accomplish. Elida is no stranger to the life of a seasonal resident. She lives in Tampa, Fla. from November to June and in Michigan the rest of the year, where her parents pick apples and cherries.
She intends to enroll at Michigan State University like her older sister, Esbeydy, a sophomore. And like her older sister, Elida intends to major in criminal justice to become a lawyer.
Such admirable goals start now, Elida said, with the summer migrant program, which, the 12-year-old quickly adds, has voluntary enrollment.
“The teachers here are ready to help you out,” Elida said. “I go here to challenge myself. To be able to succeed, I try to be smarter than what I am. I try to beat myself.”
Kent City schools use the same curriculum as five other states, so academic assessments can be made, Smith said. The Summer Migrant Program includes a k-12 computer lab, music appreciation for pre-kindergarten to 4th grade, k-12 swimming lessons; as well as literacy and math.
“We have to be concentrated,” Smith said. “We only have six weeks, so we pre-test each student so we know what those educational gaps are.”
And it’s more than filling learning gaps, Smith added. Field trips to MSU one summer, alternated to West Michigan University the next, provides students with a front-row seat to what higher education can make possible.
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Planting Seeds, Sparking Flames
“That plants the seed, that sparks the flame,” Smith said. “Parents are very supportive of their children doing more, of giving them choices and options. They work really hard to give them every chance they can.”
Eighth-grader Arturo Cruz’s parents are among the migrant workers who want more for their children.
Arturo lived with his family primarily in Georgia from 2005-2010 until they decided to stake out a living in Michigan starting when he was in third grade. They moved from Belding to the Kenowa Hills school district to Kent City, where his father picks mostly apples during the warm months and trims trees in the winter.
“Going to different schools doesn’t bother me because people are nicer to me and I learn how to interact with people I don’t know,” Arturo said.
Arturo’s long-term goals include enrolling at Davenport University, becoming a doctor and eventually working for a clinic in his family’s native village, 50 miles from Mexico City.
“There are no reasons why these students can’t become doctors, lawyers or anything else,” Smith said. “They just need a little bit of help. We want to give them an opportunity, the skills, to go out and do something different if they so choose.”