Eye on Education

Costs, crowding form barriers for migrant children hoping to attend preschool (video)

Farm laborer Juan Gonzalez never went to preschool, so he was surprised when his 1-year-old son came home bilingual from preschool.

Gonzalez's son, also named Juan Gonzalez, has been attending preschool at the Parlier Migrant Child Care Center, a program run by the Fresno County Office of Education. The family travels each year from Michoacán, Mexico, to work at a vineyard for the season. For those six or so months, they live in a migrant camp alongside 130 other families.

School started in June for Gonzalez's son. The daylong classes provide a relief for Gonzalez, 30, and his wife, both full-time workers. Without the free program, Maria Yaneth Rivera Villalón would have to stay home to watch young Juan -- a sacrifice they can't really afford.

But more importantly, Gonzalez said, his son has flourished.

"He didn't speak at all when we got here," Gonzalez said in Spanish. "Only 'Mama' and 'Papa.' Now he says things like 'give me,' 'here,' 'food,' 'water,' 'juice.' He also understands words in English."

Gonzalez didn't realize his son would learn so quickly. "They are learning a lot of things we never got to," he said. "I want him to study so he can do better than me, working in the fields."

A lucky few

In agriculture-heavy Fresno County, farmworker parents seeking to prepare their children for kindergarten can choose from a smattering of options, including weekly home-based lessons and Fresno Migrant and Seasonal Head Start. The county's migrant education division also runs two preschools for children ages 1 to 5: Parlier and Mariposa Meadows in Fresno together serve about 70 migrant students whose parents understand the benefits of early learning despite not having had the same opportunity.

But many migrant children can't enroll in privately operated preschools because of cost and transportation or in government-funded migrant preschools because there aren't enough seats. Plus, changing migration patterns, which favor family stability and render children ineligible for federal funding, lessen the likelihood that migrant programs will expand.

At the Parlier center in late August, teacher Claudia Morales reviewed color names with her 4-year-old students.

"Jose, can you tell me what color this is?" she said, pointing to a chart.

The boy's reply was swift: "Brown!"

In a span of 10 minutes, Morales also helped her students memorize the days of the week and the ABCs -- complete with American Sign Language letters. They knew to raise their hands before answering questions and replied as easily in English as they did Spanish.

Numerous studies extol the benefits of early childhood education, both social and academic. Researchers say children who attend quality preschool programs enter kindergarten better prepared intellectually, emotionally and linguistically.

"It's the little things we take for granted, like holding a pencil for the first time," said Susan De La O-Flores, coordinator of the Parlier and Mariposa Meadows centers, which operate under a yearly budget of about $715,000 in federal Title 1-C migrant funds.

Studies show that disadvantaged students and those learning English as a second language -- characteristics that fit many migrant students -- tend to benefit most from preschool. That could be especially true in Fresno, where nearly one-fourth of K-12 students enrolled under the county Office of Education are learning English.

De La O-Flores said the migrant preschool program, which is free to qualifying students, provides an academic leg up they might not otherwise get. It also serves as a consistent routine in their otherwise unsteady lives. Teachers at Parlier work with the same batch of students each year until they enter kindergarten.

However, students enrolled in the county's migrant preschool programs are among a lucky few. Many migrant children don't receive an early education because of high costs, waiting lists or transportation issues. Migrant preschools are free and include transportation when needed but have limited space.

Tracking migrant preschoolers can be challenging as their families travel back and forth, making it difficult to even inform them of preschool options. Among Fresno County's more than 8,000 registered migrant students in grades pre-K-12, 94% are Hispanic; the rest are Hmong. About 750 are between the ages of 3 and 5. Ruben Castillo, the county's administrator of migrant education services, said it's hard to know how many others in the area are uncounted.

But even if parents are informed of their options, he said, they might not sign up. "There's a certain fear factor with parents that don't have a Social Security (number). They don't understand we are an educational entity and we don't have anything to do with immigration (enforcement)."

Fresno Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, which operates nine locations in rural communities, served 532 children this year. Program director Flora Chacon said families are found the grass-roots way: door knocking and word of mouth.

"It would be fair to say there's a lot of work that needs to be done and there are a lot of children that aren't reached," she said.

Double-edged sword

Castillo said about 70% of identified preschool-age migrant children not enrolled in an early learning facility end up in the county's home-based program. Teachers make weekly visits to their households to help parents learn how to teach their children, and also to work with the youngsters.

Many live in rural agricultural areas where nonmigrant preschools don't exist. Farm laborers, who often work long hours starting at sun-up, don't have the time or money to place their children in such preschools.

Just 37% of students in Clovis, Fresno, Sanger and Central unified school districts -- which represent 70% of children in Fresno County -- were adequately prepared when they entered kindergarten in 2013, according to the Kindergarten Student Entrance Profile. Castillo said that's a sign of how unprepared children in rural communities are.

There's another reason these children aren't getting into preschools: They don't qualify.

Traditional migration patterns are changing. Many families now either travel shorter distances within the state, or the family settles in one place while the head of household travels for agriculture work.

These changes impact schools. Fresno County, once home to the most migrant students in the state, has seen a significant enrollment decline in the past five years.

"We encourage the parents not to pull their children out of school so they can stay on track," Castillo said. "The problem is, to qualify for the migrant education program, the kids have to move with the family. It's kind of a double-edged sword."

And the drought, which has affected so many aspects of life in the Valley, also impacts enrollment. As water dries up, farmers are turning more to orchards and vineyards, which require less manual labor. Castillo said that means migrant fathers are looking elsewhere for work, leaving their wives and children behind.

"You don't suddenly catch up because you stop migrating," he said. "That academic deficit is still there."

Back at the Parlier center, teacher Claudia Rodriguez, who works with 3-year-olds, remembered being a migrant preschooler herself.

Rodriguez, 32, still travels with her parents every six months between their home in Mission, Texas and the labor camp in Parlier. On weekends, when school is out, she packs fruit at an orchard with her mother.

Rodriguez knows she is a role model for her students.

"I struggled a lot because I've always been a migrant, but I'm here now," she said. "It's good for them to know they can grow up to be somebody."