(Update: A Spanish translation of this story is now available, courtesy of the Los Angeles Unified Migrant Education Program.) School on Saturday? Most students would protest such an intrusion on their free time, but for children of migrant workers, Saturday school is a family affair.
Combined with after-school and summer programs, Saturday courses are a required part of the federally funded Migrant Education Program, which gives some of the country’s most at-risk students a chance to keep pace with their peers.
Migrant education programs are for children whose parents are in jobs that require them to move frequently, such as in the agriculture industry. Children may attend several different schools each year as families move from region to region, following the seasonal planting of crops.
To ensure that children don’t fall behind, the program offers a range of services such as academic classes, bilingual and multicultural instruction, vocational education and even some health care.
Saturday programs have been seen as a way to supplement traditional academic years and boost student achievement, yet formal use of Saturdays as part of the school calendar, along the lines of the migrant program, is a rarity in California.
The program includes multiple Saturday activities for the entire family, with child care provided for babies and toddlers, preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, hands-on projects for elementary and middle school students, and a chance to catch up on credits for high school students. Classes for adults focus on literacy, nutrition, computer skills and parenting. Districts that want to participate in the migrant program – which is voluntary for both schools and families – must offer academic services beyond the regular school day to receive federal funds.
Interviews by EdSource in recent months have found that some campuses offer special tutoring or Advanced Placement preparation sessions, while other students participate in athletic or arts events on Saturdays or perform community service work. In addition, some schools use Saturday academic programs as a way to recoup average daily attendance funding losses by requiring students with many absences to attend.
But few programs compare to the full-scale, in-depth approach by the migrant education program, which attempts to prevent the learning loss that could be suffered when students are transferred from one school to the next as their parents follow the crops or other itinerant work.
Those who advocate for more learning time for students say Saturday programs are one way schools can boost student achievement, along with longer school days and longer school years.
“All of those speak to the fact that the conventional 180-day, five-day-a-week schedule is not based on what’s needed for kids and families,” said Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Maryland-based National Center on Time & Learning, which advocates for more academic time. “That schedule is based on a set of convenient routines people worked out (around adult work schedules). But a lot of the experimentation you’re seeing is based on people saying there are different populations of students now with different needs, and maybe we shouldn’t be so bound by traditions.”
Many Saturday programs have been difficult to sustain because of cost and varying degrees of interest among participants, Gabrieli notes, yet those that engage and serve the entire family may have the best chance of long-term success because they can create buy-in from the community.
Rosa León, who teaches in the migrant education program in Los Angeles Unified, says she wishes the interactive, hands-on, family-oriented classes were available to all students. All students and families, she said, could benefit from this approach.
The migrant program supports children and youth, ages 3 to 21, whose parents or other members of their family have worked in agriculture, fishing, dairy, food processing and packing, forestry or the livestock industries within the past three years. While following the temporary work, parents must have taken their child from their regular school to a different school district, whether or not the student went to school at the second location, program organizers said.
Not all eligible students participate in the voluntary migrant program. Statewide, 133,928 students were eligible to participate in the 2011-12 school year, but only 79,547 took part in the classes, according to figures from the California Department of Education.
In Los Angeles Unified, 2,500 students qualify for the program, yet only about 10 percent of those participate, despite efforts by staff to encourage greater attendance. The Los Angeles program offers classes during the summer and after school in addition to eight to nine Saturday classes per semester, lasting from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Many of the families who participate in the Los Angeles migrant program turn to temporary agricultural work when they can’t find other jobs, or if they are laid off from other employment, said Nellie Barrientos, migrant education program coordinator at Los Angeles Unified.
“When families do not find work in Los Angeles, one of the alternatives they have is to seek agricultural work up north in Fresno, Bakersfield, Oxnard, Tulare or Santa Maria,” Barrientos said in an email.
While the district encourages every eligible family to attend, many face logistical challenges, Barrientos said. The migrant students are scattered throughout the large, urban district, and parents may struggle to find transportation to the three school sites that offer Saturday programs. In addition, some parents work on Saturdays or have other commitments, not to mention that getting teenagers to get up in the morning is no easy task.
The program provides valuable academic assistance, but also exposes students to experiences they might not otherwise have – such as out-of-state field trips or trips to local beaches to study the tide pools.
Claudia Bañuelos, whose parents picked lettuce, was 14 and a good student in the Los Angeles district when her mother insisted that she attend Saturday school with the family.
“I didn’t feel the need to go, to get up early on Saturday,” she recalled. “But once we were there, we knew there was a purpose for us.”
Because she did not need to make up credits, Bañuelos helped tutor the younger students.
Bañuelos, now 32 and a graduate of California State University, Fresno, said the dedicated teachers who worked in the program helped her realize she had educational and career options she hadn’t considered before.
Self-conscious about her Spanish accent, Bañuelos hadn’t thought about attending college and instead intended to get whatever job she could after high school. The teachers in the program made her realize that there was nothing wrong with her accent, she said.
“English wasn’t my first language,” she said, “so I just had to work with it and make sure I was understood. It’s just who I am.”
Now a mother of three, Bañuelos runs an after-school program and plans to return to college in January to pursue either a teaching credential or a career as a nurse.
Her mother, Rosa Bañuelos, said the program “changed our lives.” Now that her children have grown, Bañuelos volunteers with the migrant education program.
“I learned to be a parent leader, learned to write,” she said. “My husband and I learned that educating our children was a family thing – that it takes the whole family.”
The migrant education program is taught by credentialed teachers, such as kindergarten teacher León, who teaches at Humphreys Avenue Elementary in East Los Angeles on regular school days and with the program at Harmony Elementary in South L.A. in the summer and on Saturdays.
“It is a lot of work, but it is very gratifying,” León said. “They come because they want to come, and the parents are so grateful for this opportunity.”
Students are given a writing score from 1 to 4 when they begin the semester, and an individual plan for each student is developed based on that score. Students are assessed again at the end of the semester. The collected data, a written assessment of the students and samples of their work are then given to their classroom teachers.
“Many of the students jump up one score, a few even two scores,” León said. “Even if they have the same score, I can see growth, especially in kindergarten, in the ways the kids are expressing themselves.”
This includes their ability to speak in complete sentences in English, broaden their vocabulary and tackle more sophisticated art projects. Data on the writing assessment for 157 students at the three sites in spring 2013 show that more than 60 percent of the students grew by at least one point in their writing assessment, with almost a quarter jumping two points.
With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards, the migrant education program is focusing more on critical thinking and writing. This past summer, León’s kindergarteners researched the threats to marine life and then were asked to write an opinion piece about whether it was important to preserve ocean habitats.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of the program, according to its graduates, is the boost in self-confidence.
Mariana Alonzo, 18, the daughter of an orange picker, is a civil engineering student at University of California, Davis, who participated in the migrant program. She recalls a trip to Washington, D.C., offered to middle school students through the migrant education program. She had never ventured outside California.
“Because of that trip, I was able to come out of my comfort zone,” she said. “It was a week without my parents. It was hard. I cried. But it helped me be stronger and made me realize I’d have to be on my own someday.”
This story has been translated into Spanish by the Los Angeles Unified Migrant Education Program. A copy of the Spanish version is available here.
EdSource Today senior editor Michelle Maitre contributed to this report. Susan Frey covers expanded learning time. Contact her.