40-year-old migrant program still meets changing needs
HOOPESTON – The summer migrant education program at Hoopeston schools is housed at David Greer School this summer, back where it started 40 years ago.
Maria Martinez hopes that's not a bad omen. Martinez, who's worked with the federally funded program every year since it began, said participants' numbers have dropped dramatically, but students' needs have changed and grown.
"This program is still needed," she said. "We need to prepare these students for life today now more than ever. We used to make art projects like trains out of boxes. Now we concentrate on numbers and books. We're not painting boxes anymore."
District Superintendent Mark Conolly said Hoopeston used to be known for its busy canneries, which operated for more than a century before they closed in the 1990s, and for the local services the city and schools provided to the migrants who flocked north every summer to work in the fields and factories.
"Our program is small compared to what it used to be," Conolly said. "At one time, we had more than 400 kids in the summer program. Now we have about 40."
"The program's definitely past its heyday," said Greer Principal Dan Walder, who's presiding over it for the second year. "Now families of the children we get are mostly here for detasseling, a job local kids used to do."
Walder and Martinez said most children who come to the seven-week program, which ends July 28, speak English well because they attend schools in the winter in Texas.
"But their literacy is all over the board because of their migratory lifestyle," Walder said. "They're uprooted twice a year and they miss out on some education. We hope to bridge that gap. This program helps teachers identify individual children's needs and work on them."
Martinez knows firsthand the obstacles youngsters whose families travel face. She grew up in a migrant family and continued to travel after she was married, until she convinced her husband to stay in Hoopeston so their children could have a stable education.
She remembers the camp that used to house the thousands of workers who came to Hoopeston to work in the fields and factories.
"It was a big camp on Illinois 9, rooms lined up like motel rooms, one for each family," Martinez. "There were eight of us in one room. There were so many people you didn't get to know everyone – at one time 10 crew leaders with 260 workers each, and that doesn't count the kids."
In 1966, when the program started at Hoopeston, Martinez was home taking care of her mother while her father and brothers picked asparagus and other crops for what was then Illinois Canning Co.
"I educated myself from a dictionary," she said. "It was hard, and I don't want these kids to go through that. I went back when I was 16 and got a GED. But I have no college."
Martinez was drafted to work for the program by a nurse, Helen Kaufmann, who worked for the school district and visited the camps to check children's welfare.
"I'd go around the camp gathering kids and walk them to school and after 11 a.m., I'd walk them back home," she said. "I helped in classrooms because the teachers didn't speak Spanish. I tried to make them feel secure because the parents trusted me."
Martinez became a recruiter in 1975, and today, she still accompanies her young charges to and from school – but on a bus.
She said she's seen children's and parent's attitudes about education change as agriculture changed and new opportunities opened up. "I used to have to push kids to come to school, especially older kids," Martinez said. "But beginning about the mid-'80s, people began getting more involved in the communities and in education."
Today, she said, most Hispanic parents eagerly promote education to their children. Martinez works with agencies and other community organizations to seek out children who qualify for the program. To qualify, their families must travel to find agriculture jobs taking the children with them. When they've qualified, they may attend the summer program for three years.
Walder said youngsters are divided into four classrooms – pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, grades 1 and 2, grades 3, 4 and 5, and grades 6 through 12. The staff totals 10, with a teacher and aide in each classroom.
John Brown, who teaches high school English during the school year, has taught at the summer school for more than 20 years. He said the summer experience is completely different.
"You never know who's coming," Brown said. "All of a sudden today, I had five new faces in my class. You have to be flexible, change things, make it interesting. Teaching sixth- through 12th-graders is a big range."
He said he works on vocabulary, often a problem for children whose first language is Spanish.
"We're trying to help them look toward the future," Brown said. "I hope the program continues because our numbers are really down. I don't know if we can turn it around."
Jesenia Salinas, 15, who travels with her aunt and uncle, said her initial goal is high school graduation in 2009 and she's picking up extra credits this summer. She said teachers at Hoopeston and at her home school in Texas helped her map out a course of action after that: joining the Marine Corps to help her pay for education after high school.
She said the school program helps her and her classmates feel welcome.
"The people here are very nice," Jesenia said.