Classroom in the Cherry Orchards

By Beacon Staff

POLSON – For migrant workers constantly on the move, maintaining a regular school schedule for their children is often a dim prospect. Maricela Flores has spent all of her 26 years shuffling through migrant worker camps, trying to balance the financial need of toiling in the fields with the educational need of classroom attendance for both herself and her three children.

Flores has been coming to Flathead Lake each summer for 12 years to pick cherries. During her teenage years, she often chose the orchard over class, which is held at Polson Middle School on the other side of the lake. In a good cherry harvest year, she can single-handedly pull in $800 a week. It’s hard to justify school when you need money.

But for the past four years, the Montana Migrant Education Program (MEP) has expanded its outreach programs to include a tutor system, called Count on Me, which brings educators directly to the migrant camps. So those who don’t attend daytime classes can still work with a tutor at the end of the workday, expanding their math skills, improving their English and even tapping away at laptops under the shade of cherry trees. While nearly 100 students attended daily classes at Polson Middle School this cherry season, another 600 children remained in the orchards.

Flores says the tutors, who weren’t around when she was younger, have greatly benefited her children. Though they are only 1, 3 and 5 years old, not yet school age, her kids stay mentally active and engaged with the tutors, which is vital for Flores, a single mother, as she copes with long days in the orchard and back at migrant camp.

“They’re not bored and they’re doing things in the shade, out of the hot sun,” Flores said. “It keeps their minds going. They need that out here.”

Across the state, from sugar beet harvesters in eastern Montana to cherry pickers in the Flathead, migrant workers flood into the state each summer, mostly from Washington. MEP, a Title I program that is funded by federal grants through the state Office of Public Instruction, is tasked with making sure the children of these traveling laborers stay up to date on their studies and advance their language skills. The Rural Employment Opportunities (REO) program, a subsidiary of MEP, administers Count on Me.

Nationwide, the Migrant Education Program provides services to roughly 800,000 eligible children.

Though most migrant children are enrolled during the regular school year, many miss class time because they’re on the road. Others bounce around from school to school and fall behind. To fulfill attendance requirements and keep pace with peers in testing capacity, many of these kids need summer school, which is difficult for migrant families since summer is prime harvesting time. If they fall too far behind, they may never catch up and are forced to drop out.

Also, the tutors reinforce the rhythm of the school year – when kids fall out of sync and remove themselves for too long from the learning environment, it’s easier to become disillusioned with the formal education system.

“Every single year they’re moving from school to school to school,” said Marty Jacobson, technological instructor for REO. “It creates this gap. That’s what we’re here to do – fill in those gaps.”

And Angela Branz-Spall, who has been director of migrant education in Montana for 25 years, said those gaps are being filled. When the program first began, the dropout rate among migrant students was 90 percent, she said. Today, it’s 50 percent.

“We’ve made a dent in it and we continue to do so through these programs,” Branz-Spall said. “(The educators) really make a difference in these kids’ lives.”

The core migrant school day is held at Polson Middle School, with classes running from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. Students do reading, writing, math and technology exercises. All classes are taught in English, creating a challenge for teachers who are not necessarily well-versed in Spanish as the tutors are required to be. Volunteers from Polson High School’s Spanish classes help out with the language barrier and more.

But for the majority of kids who remain at the migrant camps, the only way to reach them is through the tutors.

The first step is simply finding the migrants, though after days of searching, Kathy Wilkinson, director of the tutor program, said she believes this year nearly every child in the area was located. But not all receive tutorial services because the 18 tutors – up from six just three years ago – can only do so much. Every located child, however, is given food, which also comes via REO. Nutrition is a constant concern among migrant laborers.

Staff and tutors arrive with their Count on Me T-shirts to identify themselves and help with any uneasiness among the migrants.

“I would challenge anyone to go out into the woods and find the 300 and some kids we find a night,” Wilkinson said. “They know who we are and they trust us.”

Of the roughly 1,100 migrant children identified in Montana this summer, about 700 came to the Flathead for cherry season. Branz-Spall said in the past, most migrant workers were found in eastern Montana’s sugar beet areas. But over the years as farmers have found ways, both mechanical and chemical, to make growing and harvesting sugar beets more efficient, the need for manual labor has decreased.

A consequence of this transition, Branz-Spall said, is that most migrants are turning their attention to cherry season, which lasts only a few weeks. With sugar beets, migrants are stationary for nearly three months per year, allowing students to complete entire curriculums and even earn high school credits. In Sidney this year, despite few migrants, a large number of high school credits were awarded. In the Flathead, there won’t be any.

“It’s been hard to have a program of any significance,” Branz-Spall said of the Flathead.

So educators have adapted their focus and tactics accordingly, including the development of the Matrix Lab, masterminded by Jacobson. It’s a trailer that carries laptops, satellite Internet and a generator that allows for constant electricity.

But the heart of the tutors’ work revolves around an innovative educational philosophy called the Third Way, created by Peggy Reimann. Tutors focus strictly on math with the kids, playing number games with objects many of them might already have, like cards and dice. Math serves as the common bridge between English and Spanish and the activities initiate verbal interaction. So in practice, card games become language lessons. Tutors then provide administrators with written assessments of each student.

“They gain a visceral, almost physical, kinesthetic understanding of numbers,” Reimann said.

On a recent afternoon, Flores reflected on this year’s poor cherry harvest. Calling it her worst season ever, she said, “I have to go back and pay bills and I have no money.” But her spirits lifted as she watched her two younger siblings sit at laptop computers near Flathead Lake and work on job resumes under the guidance of Jacobson and two tutors. Talk shifted to the future and she said she, along with the rest of her family, will return to this same orchard next summer.

“We all love this lake,” she said. “It’ll be better.”