PBS Premiere: Aug. 27, 2002Check the broadcast schedule »

Education Challenges

Although not all migrant youth work alongside their parents in the fields, most migrate with their families. Some are able to find ways to remain in one location and finish their schooling while their parents work and travel.

500,000 students migrated between states in the U.S. in the year 2000. Because their families are constantly moving from place to place as their parents seek work opportunities across state or national boundaries, the children are shuffled between school districts, their semesters interrupted by relocation. For these students, this continual movement disrupts school life in a profound way. In addition, for the schools that enroll these children, the migration process makes tracking students and their progress extremely difficult as each school district varies greatly in terms of curricula, funding and resources. As a result, the high school dropout rate among migrant youth is extremely high, with estimates ranging from 45-60 percent.

Another dilemma migrant families face is that sometimes second-generation migrant youth assimilate into American culture, assuming a new cultural identity. This creates a cultural rift between first- and second-generation migrants which leads to strained family relations and deepens the language barrier.

The U.S. Department of Education has launched several initiatives that target migrant youth. States and towns can receive federal grants to construct their own programs for remedial education and intervention for migrant youth falling behind their schooling. California, which faces the daunting task of educating approximately 200,000 migrant school children, has particularly well-developed resources to deal with migrant education issues, including:

  • joint report cards, which allow credits to transfer more easily between school systems,
  • the temporary employment of Spanish-speaking teachers to provide supplementary summer classes for migrants and to monitor schooling among migrant communities,
  • an online database of student records to facilitate the transition from one system to another.

The Texas Education Agency has also begun using computer technology to enable the transfer of student records across state lines. An online database called New Generation System allows school officials to log in and exchange information on migrant students' health, school and demographic records. The Texas Migrant Education Program also actively recruits migrant students into the school system.

Nonetheless, there are still significant problems in migrant education, mainly due to a lack of infrastructure that enables these students to negotiate public school bureaucracies across state and national lines. The structural issues are exacerbated by poverty, institutional racism, and the social pressures that all American students face -- drugs, crime, etc.

Many government programs aim at early intervention, with Head Start or Even Start programs designed specifically for migrant children at the elementary and pre-school levels. Other programs, such as the Migrant Leadership Institute in Georgia, encourages high schoolers to pursue higher education, offering academic as well as emotional support for bright but struggling students. Some programs attempt to foster educational achievement by engaging parents as well as children, helping migrants take on a more active role in promoting their children's studies. Statistically, these programs have made significant progress, improving migrant high school graduation rates from 10 to 40 percent over two decades.