Over the last decade, the Graduate School of Education has conferred advanced degrees and teaching or counseling credentials on a series of former Migrant Education Program students who are now using their CLU training to serve current migrant learners in Ventura County. Meanwhile, a doctoral student with deep experience in this field is searching for the keys to their success, given that just one in 10 migrant students goes on to college and a profession.
By Kevin Matthews
As a young student, Rocio Bravo-Chavez, M.S. ’07, was always starting over “from the bottom.” She attended three elementary schools in Oxnard before the family of seven moved to Camarillo, where she was the only one in her third-grade class still learning to speak English. About the time she felt comfortable with the language, in the middle of fifth grade, it was back to La Piedad in the Mexican state of Michoacán.
Bravo-Chavez would enjoy a first academic triumph about a year later, rising to the top of her class in Mexico, and suffer more setbacks on her way to two master’s degrees and a K-12 counseling credential. She got help through her journey from her determined father and a federal program for migratory students.
With instruction on Saturdays and during the summer, the Migrant Education Program focuses on closing the achievement gap for students whose learning is interrupted as parents move around to work in agriculture, fishing, the dairy and lumber industries, and packinghouses.
“My dad worked for more than 40 years in the fields here and in Mexico, and he always encouraged me: If you don’t want to work in the fields, then you have to work hard and go to school,” Bravo-Chavez said.
As a counselor at Santa Paula High School, Bravo-Chavez now helps hundreds of students facing the same obstacles she overcame as a kid. And she’s not alone. Over the last decade, CLU’s Graduate School of Education has conferred advanced degrees and teaching or counseling credentials on at least eight former migrant students who are now using their training to serve current migrants at Ventura County schools.
“It’s something that we saw when we were growing up, and we’ve been through it, and we wanted to come back so that the future generation would also have that opportunity to be successful,” said David Ramos, M.S. ’05, a special programs counselor at Hueneme High School in Oxnard who assists migrant students, English-language learners and disadvantaged students.
In addition to preparing professionals such as Ramos, the education school collaborates with the Rio Learning Academy, a Saturday school for migrant learners in Oxnard’s Rio School District. CLU faculty and doctoral students mentor middle school students on the academy’s speech and debate team and serve as judges at its science fair.
Last April, the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company gave an all-day workshop and performance at the school site. With funding from the Target Foundation, CLU’s education school is running professional development seminars this year to help Rio teachers use visual and performing arts education across the curriculum.
“I think CLU is a very special place, because it’s a small school where you get a lot of direct dialogue with the teacher about your ideas, about your projects,” said Richard Castaniero, a current student pursuing a master’s degree and a special education teaching credential. “I’ve never had a professor tell me they can’t meet with me because they’re too busy, and I’ve even had professors talk to me late at night after class. Overall, it’s an academic community that’s really focused on supporting students.”
Costs of Relocation
“Once you work with the migrant population, you fall in love with it,” said Andres Duran, M.Ed. ’05, who as a teen immigrant from Mexico did not qualify for the program. “They’re very respectful and they really listen to their teachers, and they really want to get ahead, but they don’t have the tools. So you try to provide them all the things that you can to make them successful.”
A former director of the Rio Learning Academy who’s been working in migrant education since 1998, Duran is now at the proposal stage of a CLU dissertation that asks why some migrant students succeed, while others do not. Given that roughly one in 10 migrant students go on to college and become professionals, the study will address a burning question.
The issue is not immigration. All of the former migrant students consulted for this article were born in Ventura County or obtained U.S. permanent residency at an early age.
The migrant student population in Ventura County is mostly Latino, but includes others such as young Filipinos who qualify because their parents work in fisheries.
What nearly all of these students have in common is poverty, low self-esteem and high, everyday exposure to risk. If you want to know why most students don’t “make it,” Duran says, start by looking at how many of their mothers don’t get prenatal care, how many words their parents speak to them at home, compared with affluent families, and how many of them don’t start school until age 6 or 7.
Based on his research, Duran estimates that every move costs a migrant student half a year of instruction. And all too often, by high school these students face a stark choice between continuing their education and providing for their families’ basic needs.
‘People Just Worked’
Valentina Avalos, M.Ed. ’05, a reading intervention teacher for Camarillo elementary students, was born in Oxnard, the middle child of seven, and brought up by a single mother. While her mother picked strawberries, oranges, onions and lettuce, the family lived in rented rooms, garages converted into rentals and, during one especially hard period, a car. Her mother showered at the beach then.
For most of Avalos’ childhood, her mother woke her up by 4:30 a.m. and took her to an aunt’s house, where she slept again until it was time for school. Avalos, who wanted a different life for her family, thought of an hourly wage as her highest aim.
There was nobody out there that really cared about my education, about what I was doing at home, if I was eating or not eating.
“Like many people, I didn’t really have people telling me, ‘go to college.’ In my family people just worked,” she said. Her high school friends “all either dropped out, or they started working, or they got pregnant. I was the only one who made the choice not to live like them.”
Ramos, the Hueneme High counselor, and Bertha Zaragoza, M.S. ’06, a counselor at Buena High School in Ventura, had fathers who worked on construction projects and in the fields, and mothers who packed sea urchins and avocados.
Ramos moved for two years with his family to the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in time for kindergarten. Zaragoza was constantly changing elementary and middle schools in Port Hueneme and Oxnard.
“There was nobody out there that really cared about my education, about what I was doing at home, if I was eating or not eating,” said Zaragoza, the youngest of seven children and the only one of her siblings to attend college.
Zaragoza tries to offer the caring and attention she missed to the roughly 380 students on her caseload, perhaps two dozen of whom participate in the migrant program. Along with her regular duties, she is responsible for helping seniors apply for admission and financial aid at nearby Ventura College.
“It’s just rewarding to see the kids continue, because I know how it feels to have your degree, to not have to work a minimum wage job anymore, to not have to work in a factory,” she said.
Drawing Students Out
Near the end of a 5 ½-week summer program for migrant students at Hueneme High, Ramos pauses to advise a senior named Cristina to take three workbook-based courses to fulfill graduation requirements. Days before, he convinced her mother to let her stay in mariachi, the school band where she was learning violin. In walks Ana Rosita, and Ramos jabbers about her smile until she cracks one.
“What they really need is someone they can trust, someone they can go to for whatever reason, someone that they can feel comfortable with,” he said, recalling a male student who rode his bike to Saturday school in spite of heavy rain.
Much of the energy in migrant education is directed toward drawing students out of protective shells, so that they can discover and pursue their talents. This, even more than exposing them to subject matter, is the point of having a regional speech and debate competition for migrants and the science fair at Rio academy.
Two years ago, Castaniero left a successful L.A. film career and began working with K-8 migrant students at Rio Learning Academy and in the Hueneme school district. As a product of UC Berkeley’s English program and UCLA’s film school who never read a book “cover-to-cover” before college, he is acutely aware of the developmental and emotional hurdles many students face.
The former screenwriter and current CLU master’s degree student has painful early memories of being scolded or punished for mixing Spanish into his writing.
“Sometimes I was made to feel dumb, versus made to understand that I was bilingual,” he said.
Castaniero held back tears when discussing his efforts to help one Mixtec-speaking student, who obviously loved books, to put down a well-worn young reader’s biography of baseball player Roberto Clemente and try something more advanced. Fearing ridicule and failure, the boy hated to read aloud and avoided challenges.
What’s going on in California is serious. The prison system looks at fourth-grade reading levels to decide how many beds they’re going to make.
“I went into special ed trying to find that key to unlock his reading skills,” Castaniero said. Asked about his commitment to the Hueneme district’s science program, he said, “It’s a passion. It’s not about hours. You can’t pay me the hours that I put into it.”
“What’s going on in California now is very serious,” Castaniero added. “The prison system looks at fourth-grade reading levels to decide how many prison beds they’re going to make. I got a lot of support during my education. I have friends who didn’t, and they’ve been through the prison system.”
Drivers of Success
For the 10 percent who go on from the migrant program to college and good-paying jobs, the most common thing they had going for them was a parent who cared deeply about their schooling, according to Duran. But there are all kinds of stories. For his dissertation, Duran will combine personal interviews with data collection, in the hope of uncovering hidden drivers of success.
“Even people that have it all sometimes don’t make it, and some people who have nothing end up making it. So what is it?” Duran said, adding, “I believe that there’s a trigger in everybody’s life where we come to the realization that, oops, I’d better get it together.”
Avalos, for one, completed seven straight years of higher education not because of anything an adult told her, but because she didn’t want her mother’s life.
“What drove me, too, is that I wanted to be an educated person,” she said. “I wanted a job where I could give back and work with children like myself, and help them out and be a model for them.”
Not one of the former migrant students said that they would have met today’s strict eligibility requirements for the program. After repeated cuts, the number of students in the migrant program at Hueneme High has fallen by about half, to fewer than 300, in the six years he’s been a counselor, Ramos said.
These CLU educators are concerned about the consequences of squeezing the migrant program. All of them cited the it as a bright spot in their early experiences at school.
For Bravo-Chavez, her lowest moment as a student came when the family returned to Michoacán during her fifth-grade year. Somehow, though they couldn’t afford it, her parents hired a private tutor for the children then struggling to read, write and speak Spanish well enough for school.
Bravo-Chavez worked hard over the summer and the following year and finally had the privilege, reserved for the top student in each class at the Mexican school, of being a flag-bearer at a year-end ceremony.
She didn’t forget what the flag meant.
“Working hard for what you want in the end is worth it,” Bravo-Chavez said. “That was one of the best memories I have from my childhood.”