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Migrant Education Program named best in state

When the N.C. Department of Public Instruction decided to choose the state’s top migrant education program recently, the selection, if not obvious, was at least easy. Consistency, energy and innovation in bringing educational and support services to the migrant families who work crops in the area each year made Lenoir County Public Schools both first and foremost.

A Migrant Education Program recruiter dressed as Santa gives an young Hispanic girl presents in an outdoor scene with cows. In being named winner of the N.C. 2018-19 Outstanding Migrant Education Program, LCPS was cited for its ability to connect children, particularly those of pre-kindergarten age, to education services; its coordination with other community resources; and its efforts to engage parents “through a variety of creative initiatives.”

The program’s services, paid for with federal funds, are available to migrants 3 to 21 years old who are in Lenoir or Greene counties because of agriculture. From translation to transportation, those services are myriad, but they all point toward a single broad goal, according to Abbott Hunsucker, who supervises the work as LCPS’s interim director of federal programs.

 “We’re trying to level the playing field for these children that come with no stability in their lives whatsoever in terms of school and health care,” he said. “The main problem for the children is constant moving and never being settled anywhere.”

The so-called “migrant stream” follows the seasons and the planting and harvesting of crops. Migrants who come to Lenoir or Greene counties to work tobacco may stay into the fall to harvest sweet potatoes, then remain here until January, when the cycle begins again with farm work in Florida.

“It’s a pattern. They travel all over the United States. They keep moving,” said Estefany Diaz, leader of the team of four recruiters whose job it is to locate and connect migrant families and their children to schools and available services. “We have to recruit the people in order to enroll them in the program in order to help them.”

To locate them, recruiters depend on community contacts, word of mouth and a federal database that helps track movement and provides access to out-of-state school records. Oftentimes, a recruiter’s best resource is the predictable course of the migrant stream.

Since he was a kindergartner, Alejandro has been returning with his extended family to Lenoir County for the sweet potato harvest. He is now 13 and the database shows that this year he’s attended school in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Texas and Arizona as well as North Carolina.

To mitigate the impact such frequent disruptions in schooling may have, LCPS’s migrant program offers tutoring and a summer camp that focuses on academics, provides books in English for the children to keep as their own and connects migratory students with the district’s summer English Language Learners program.

For younger children, the program works with the Partnership for Children of Lenoir and Greene Counties to provide pre-K services and, when space is not available, offers its own pre-K experience. The oldest migrant workers in the program, those usually traveling without family as part of a crew, have access to English-language classes and the same medical and social support offered families.

“The main thing is to get the children enrolled in school and to get the family any physical or mental health services they need,” Hunsucker said. “That’s one of the main things we do: try to keep these folks healthy. They can’t get medical care, they can’t afford medical care, they don’t know where it is.”

Strong cooperative agreements with agencies like Partnership for Children and Kinston Community Health Center, with which the program contracts for medical services, were referenced by Rachel Wright-Junio of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction when she presented the Outstanding Migrant Education Program award to Diaz and her team at the annual Statewide Migrant Education Program Summit.

So were some aspects of the program that might be categorized as “above and beyond.”

“They engage migrant parents through a variety of creative initiatives,” Wright-Junio continued. “For example, last Christmas, their recruiter dressed up as Santa Claus and visited families’ homes with literacy bags and food scarcity packs. I have had the honor of attending one of their family events, which had over 60 families in attendance.”

The program partnered with Toys for Tots for the Christmas presents and solicited donations to provide a Thanksgiving meal, according to Diaz. “They don’t have anybody to give them presents. Nobody invited them anywhere,” she said.

“It’s a really hard life. We try to make their life here as normal as possible. The children will not do well in school if they are unhappy at home.”

Photo captions:

(Above) In addition to providing educational and support services for migratory families, LCPS’s award-winning Migrant Education Program also tries to make the home life of this transient population as normal as possible – even if it means dressing as Santa and delivering Christmas presents, books and food to migrant families’ homes.

(Below) The Lenoir County Board of Education, at its June 3 meeting, honored the team of the district’s Migrant Education Program, recently named best in the state by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. From left are Abbott Hunsucker, interim director of federal programs; Superintendent Brent Williams; board vice chair Bruce Hill; Migrant Education Program recruiters Carlos Valle, Hugo Quintero, Alejandro Rios and lead Estefany Diaz; and board chair Keith King.

Members of the Migrant Education Team pose with school board members holding certificates of appreciation.