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Hot Potato: Educating the Children of Migrant Workers

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 25 Oct 2011 07:07pm | comments
One Mississippi school nears the majority Hispanic benchmark and scrambles to keep up.

Mississippi has one of the lowest Hispanic populations in the country, but some rural schools paint a different picture. MPB's education reporter, Annie Gilbertson, reports that Vardaman Elementary will likely be the first school in the state to hit the predominantly Latino marker.

Vardaman takes up a square mile and half of Calhoun County in Northeast Mississippi. It claims to be the "Sweet Potato Capital of the World"- an impressive title made possible by lots and lots of bucket crews - groups of 150 to 200 farm workers.  The potatoes are mostly dug up by a machine, but these massive crews pick up the vegetables.

Selena: “That’s where mostly everybody works.  Like if you go check it out, there are a lot of people working there.”

Selena's parents were born in Mexico and now work in Vardaman fields. The American-born high school senior won't give me her last name for fear the information might cause her parents to be deported.  She said, despite the proximity, the new Alabama immigration law hasn't made her more wary.  Her plan: go to college, become a doctor and help her parents achieve legal resident status.

Selena: “I always put my education first, then my job.  Then my friends, if I have time for friends.  It’s not really important to have friends. It’s more important to look to your future.”

Because she was born here, Selena may have a fair shot at achieving her goals. She's finishing high school in Vardaman where both the high school and elementary school are labeled as Successful.  That means, overall, the students, recent immigrants included, are performing well in math and English.

Angela Barnette is a 2nd grade teacher at Vardaman. She says adapting to the needs of Hispanic students has been a big change. There are a lot of misunderstandings, and Spanish speaking students end up translating to one another. To make things tougher, some students enter her room having never been to school before, and parents are often unable to help with homework.

Barnette: “The parent was so upset because she wanted her child to be able to learn. And she couldn’t help him.  And she wanted to help.  We were able to give her some of that help.”

A lot of the extra help comes from a full-time parent liaison and teacher of English Language Learners.  Two jobs, one person, who in many ways embodies the school’s approach to ELL students and their families.  Annie Anderson started off part-time, working primarily with the kids of migrant workers who were only in town for the sweet potato picking and planting seasons.  As the Hispanic population grew, so did her responsibilities.

Anderson: “99 percent of the parents know they can call me.  Or show up. And I live 10 miles out of town.”

Anderson was born and raised in Honduras. Research shows bilingual teachers are better at building on the knowledge students already have and are more likely to reach out to immigrant parents.  Anderson takes this to heart.  For example, once a mother and child went missing and the family called Anderson rather than the police for help. Eventually, she was able to convince the family to go to local law enforcement and the situation was resolved without anyone getting deported.

Even though immigrant families putting down roots means more work for her, Anderson says it beats the old migrant system.

Anderson: They were here for such a short period of time and then ‘Boom!’ They were gone. Then, ‘Boom!’ They were back.  Then, ‘Boom!’ They were gone again!  It was almost like fighting a never ending battle.”

And its these later years, long after most students have acquired English, that the Vardaman schools face a second challenge - getting these same students to graduate. Selena, the senior interested in medical school, says many of her classmates have already dropped out to become laborers or start families with farm workers.  She herself works full-time at the town's Mexican grocery store.  While chopping a papaya for a customer, Selena explains that many of her Hispanic students don't see the point of doing well in school if they can't get a professional job afterwards.

Selena: “Right now there are girls who are already pregnant.  The best way for them to get out of the house in by getting married.”

Selena sees more options for herself and the children of her Hispanic friends.  These younger Mexican Americans - born in the US - may be the first to put their American education to work beyond Mississippi's sweet potato fields. 

From the Southern Education Desk, for MPB News, I'm Annie Gilbertson.





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