Head Start Brings Support to Migrant Farmworker Children and Their Parents

Blog Post
July 12, 2016

This article is cross-posted from New America's Family-Centered Social Policy blog:

“Getting an education is not easy for a child working in the fields, especially those from migrant farmworker families. I had several friends that came and went with their families between Michigan, Florida, Texas, and California. They all shared the same struggle: they were behind in their classes because they would spend more of their time in the fields than studying. Most of them would attend summer school with me but their attendance was terrible and so were their grades. They never caught up, but it didn’t matter – soon they were on the move again. They too became another statistic – another farmworker youth who didn’t finish school.” - Griselda Tule-Aguirre, former child laborer and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start participant.

Last month, the newly formed Congressional Pre-K Caucus, which aims to expand early education opportunities for young children, hosted a briefing to highlight how Head Start programs serve local communities. During the presentation, four college-aged students were asked to stand up and introduce themselves.  One of these students was Griselda Tule-Aguirre, a former child laborer from Michigan. What she and the other three students had in common was their former participation in the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) Program. As they stood, each participant shared a testimonial about the impact that the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program had on them and their families. They shared that the program “reassured their futures” and “made their families stronger.”

While we don’t often hear about it, MSHS has been serving migrant children and families since 1969 and seasonal children and families since 1999. The program was created to address the unique needs and lifestyles of migrant farmworker families who often work nontraditional hours, are highly mobile, low-income, and have a first language other than English. Prior to the program’s inception , local early childhood education resources were often not accessible or available to these families. As a result, parents were forced to take their children with them to the fields where they were exposed to health risks such as pesticides and extreme heat.

MSHS, which operates in 38 states and is free to families who qualify, serves over 30,000 children from birth to age five. Two-thirds of the children are under the age of three. This is a small portion of the nearly one million children served in Head Start programs nationwide.

Like traditional Head Start, MSHS takes a comprehensive approach to meeting the needs of the whole child and whole family. Thus the program focuses on nutrition, health, parent involvement and all areas of development: social, emotional, cognitive and physical. In order to prepare families to support their children's ongoing learning and development, the centers encourage their involvement in the classroom as well as by reading at home with their children. Some centers also host English as a second language classes and parenting symposiums. Parent involvement has been shown to one of the most enduring benefits of the Head Start program, and MSHS has a strong focus on positive impacts for the whole family.

MSHS has a number of unique characteristics to meet families’ needs. First, MSHS provides coordinated services to mobile families and children as they migrate from state to state. Second, programs are seasonal in nature, meaning the MSHS programs operate anywhere from six weeks to 12 months, depending on migration patterns. Further, they provide extended hours of service-- 12 hours a day, and often six days a week to align with parents’ work schedules. Due to the large number of dual language learners in MSHS (90 percent of participants in 2014 were from homes where English was not the primary language), programs often also have a bilingual or multicultural curriculum. Finally, to address the additional health concerns faced by migrant farm worker families, MSHS programs provide comprehensive services focused on medical care, emergency food, and temporary housing.

Unfortunately, not all migrant and seasonal families are benefiting from these services. MSHS program leaders reported that filling seats has been one of their toughest challenges for decades. An article by the Hechinger Report, explains that low enrollment numbers can be explained by the fact that migrant workers are often undocumented and in many cases reluctant to take advantage of government-affiliated services. With the increase of deportations under the Obama Administration, families’ reluctance to interact with government agencies has only heightened. In 2014, advocates estimated that only 19 percent of eligible children are being served by MSHS programs, and in California, which has more eligible children than any other state, only 10 percent were getting placements.

MSHS teachers are also paid significantly less than regular Head Start teachers who already earn wages at or near the Federal poverty line. This could have implications for finding and retaining quality teachers. According to 2014 Program Information Report (PIR) data, MSHS teachers earned an average of only $19,959. In comparison, in 2014 Head Start preschool teachers earned an average of $30,409 and Early Head Start teachers earned an average of $26,488.

In a recent post titled “My Days in the Fields,” Griselda shares her story of what it was like to grow up working alongside her parents in the blueberry fields of Michigan. She explains that her childhood was not similar to her peers. “While they ran around carefree in the sun after school, I worked hard picking blueberries.” She describes the pains her body felt from working in the field and the difficulties of growing up in deep poverty.  However, towards the end of the post, Griselda explains that with the support of her parents, she was able to overcome the educational barriers that many children from migrant farmworker families face and get to where she is today – a recent graduate from Michigan State University. “I wanted to become a different kind of statistic – a farmworker who didn’t drop out of school.” Griselda acknowledges the impact that MSHS had on her and her family. She  enrolled in the program at age three and recalls first learning English at MSHS. She also says that with her and her siblings enrolled in the program, her mother was able to have time to focus on her own studies, eventually earning her GED, Associates Degree and CDA certificate.

Griselda and the other three students at the Pre-K Caucus briefing are now all part of the National Migrant & Seasonal Head Start Association (NMSHSA) Internship Program. The goal of this internship is to expose migrant students who are currently in college to the various career opportunities in Washington, DC. The NMSHSA website states that while MSHS programs provided the initial building blocks for success, this internship program is supposed to provide “the last push toward the finish line” by giving students opportunities to refine their professionalism, develop peer relationships, and connect with professional mentors.

Student testimonials last month show that MSHS can prove effective as a means for raising the school readiness of migrant children. Griselda is one great example of what the program can help children achieve. However, given that children from families of migrant workers are among the most disadvantaged in terms of early academic achievement, it is increasingly important that steps are taken to better recruit and support children from migrant families in these early education programs (ensure they are followed up by strong kindergarten and early grade teaching and learning opportunities) and to address the barriers that are keeping them away.