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A closer look at California’s forgotten migrant education centers

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A closer look at California’s forgotten migrant education centers

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Photo by Richard Bammer
Karen Gonzalez, 19, a teacher's assistant at the Dixon Migrant Children Development Center, serves lunch to a group of young migrant children in July at the Dixon Migrant Center. (Photo by Richard Bammer)

My journey into writing a series about migrant education in California’s Solano County began in the summer of 2014, when I met Susan Girimonte, assistant superintendent for educational services in Dixon Unified, a rural school district between Vacaville and Davis, off Interstate 80.

After a school board meeting, she told me about the preschool and after-school elementary class at the Dixon Migrant Center on Radio Station Road, several miles outside of Dixon proper. I was intrigued because migrant education, since President Lyndon Johnson signed the law in 1965, has generally been off the media’s radar. I wanted to know more, and I believed my paper’s readers did, too.

The center is a small, abandoned U.S. Navy installation with housing today for about 80 families. Operated by the Yolo County Housing Authority, amid the horizon-to-horizon acres of walnut and peach orchards, fields of sunflowers and tomatoes, it has not seen better days in 40 years. Looking out at the beige, nondescript homes when I first arrived, with laundry fluttering on clotheslines and happy children running, laughing and kicking a soccer ball, I remember thinking, “The grapes of wrath are still hanging on the vines.”

Later, I learned that Dixon and Vacaville unified school districts both operate migrant education programs year-round. While Vacaville educates some 120 migrant children out of some 12,500 students, Dixon, with about 3,500 students, has more than 300, meaning nearly one in 10 students is classified as migrant under federal guidelines.

They are among the estimated 200,000 migrant K-12 students in California, or nearly one-third of the nation’s total, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Education.

What got me hooked on my initial story was how the four school districts I cover do their best to make sure these students get an education under this federally funded program that responds to the educational and health needs of migrant children. Most are poor, English-language learners in classes that run from April to October. They are prone to dropping out, and many of them live in areas with high pollution and asthma rates, such as California’s Central and Imperial valleys — when they are not living in another state, Mexico or elsewhere in Central America during late fall, winter and early spring.

The program’s goal is to make sure all migrant students reach the same standards as traditional students and graduate with a high school diploma (or complete a GED).

My first story for The Reporter, “Dixon migrant education: Planting seeds, harvesting young lives,” told the story of migrant education in California through Dixon’s program — who’s being educated, and who’s doing the teaching. The federal government, I found out, gives migrant education dollars to state departments of education, based on each state’s per-pupil expenses, for all migrant students up to age 21. The money pays for teaching, including remedial instruction, career education services and testing services. The federal dollars also pay for free, nutritious breakfasts and lunches. 

My 2016 California Fellowship project that grew out of this early reporting was an effort to expand my readers’ knowledge about migrant education in Solano County. During my reporting, I faced several challenges.

One was getting access to the classrooms, students and teachers at Markham Elementary in Vacaville before the one-month migrant education summer session ended in early July in Vacaville Unified. I ultimately succeeded in getting the story, and staff photographer Joel Rosenbaum got the necessary photographs, but just barely amid other regular education beat assignments.

But a fourth story later in the series, on health services at the migrant center, proved especially difficult to complete. 

While writing the earlier stories, I learned about a new medical and dental program that consisted of mobile vans and health-care providers that visited the migrant center every Wednesday. I fully expected the medical providers to be welcoming and willing to help me get access, with permission from their migrant worker clients, of course, to the examining room.

I met with a physician assistant inside her gleaming bus-size van. She promised to return my telephone calls but never did. I phoned her supervisor in Vacaville. No response for two weeks. I went to his office and left a message with security. Still no response days later. Time was running out and the lack of official response created some anxiety and frustration. I told the physician assistant and her supervisor that I was simply writing a story about migrant health outcomes at the Dixon Migrant Center and promised not to reveal anyone’s identity — unless the client agreed.

More days passed and I grew increasingly nervous. Finally and somewhat reluctantly, I decided to contact John Vasquez, the county supervisor from Vacaville, for help in getting the access I needed. Almost immediately afterward, presto! The doors were open to me, but nearly a month had passed. The story, “Migrant health in Solano: Medical and dental care on wheels,” finally took shape.

To reporters pursuing similar assignments, I can only say that being persistent in the face of reluctant employees of taxpayer-funded agencies is probably the single greatest lesson I learned during this portion of my project, which is ongoing. Some public officials, it seems, want you to give up and go away. Be persistent and, if necessary, pull the political levers that need to be pulled in order to get the job done.

If there are other lessons that I derived from this process, they are obvious ones: respect for educators and the process of education; and respect for the migrant students, toddlers to teens, whose lives are transient, burdened by poverty, and challenged with the learning of a language rarely spoken in the home.

The best stories and quotes came from the children, teachers, and a wonderful group of college students who were former migrant children themselves and members of the California Mini-Corps, which the state hires to work with young migrant children.

In the coming months, my plan is to explore in greater detail migrant health among adults and children, with information provided by experts at the University of California, Davis. Additionally, I want to do a story about migrant families’ home lives, once they return to the Dixon Migrant Center in April.

As I was writing my three-part series last summer, a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles contacted me about the film he was working on, about Dr. Ramon Resa, who grew up as a migrant child in the Central Valley, graduated from UC Santa Cruz and became a pediatrician. He then returned to the area where he was raised to care for children who share the same early experiences he did as a child. The film, “Ramon Rising,” is scheduled for release in the coming months.

If anyone wishes to contact me about migrant education or migrant worker health, they can do so at rbammer@thereporter.com, rnhbammer@ap.net, or (707) 266-3905.

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