May 5, 2010

VI. Education and Farmwork

We miss about 2-3 weeks of school. It starts, then we go back. To me it’s normal because I don’t remember starting on the first day of school.
—Elias N., who subsequently dropped out of school, age 16, Plainview, Texas, July 21, 2009
Schools are turning a blind eye. We know that farmworker kids are not getting enrolled or not getting enrolled in the right places.
—Casey Trupin, staff attorney, Columbia Legal Services, Seattle Washington, August 18, 2010

Children who try to work and go to school at the same time, or who migrate and miss school, find that their education often suffers. A third of child crop workers drop out before graduating from high school, and without a diploma are left with few options besides a lifetime of farmwork and the poverty that accompanies it.

Thirty-three percent of US-born farmworkers had dropped out of school in 2005-2006, the most recent year for which data are available; among all farmworkers the median highest grade completed was 8th.[83] By comparison, the national dropout rate was 8 percent in 2008 (18.3 percent for Hispanics).[84] The rate for migrant children may be considerably higher. In California, the state with the largest migrant student population in the country, a 2007 study estimated that drop-out rates among migrant children were well over 50 percent.[85] Human Rights Watch interviewed farmworker children who had been held back in school one or more times, children who had never had anyone in their families graduate from high school, and youths who had dropped out.

Several factors explain this. Migrant children often end their school year early—in April or May—and return weeks or even months after school has already started. Fifteen-year-old Ana Z. said: “I don’t remember the last time I got to school registered on time. . . . I got out of math because I was a disaster. I would tell the teacher, ‘I don’t even know how to divide and I’m going to be a sophomore.’ I’m going from place to place. It scrambles things in my head and I can’t keep up.”[86] Fourteen-year-old Olivia A. said that she returns from Michigan to school in Florida late every year. On her first day at school:

I felt kind of scared because I didn’t know what to expect because people look at you as kind of dumb. You have to catch up with what other people already know. Every class starts out knowing this stuff. At the end you have exams but you weren’t there. . . . Hopefully it won’t get worse once I’m going into high school. My sister and brother dropped out. They migrated and went to school. My brother dropped out the month we came back. The first time we [migrated]. No one in my family has graduated. My sister barely did grade 8.[87]

Jose M., who said he starts school when his family goes back to Texas in November and leaves school early in May to migrate to Michigan, said: “I miss about three months and that’s a lot. . . . I’ll do senior year but don’t know if will graduate because I will miss a lot of class.”[88] And Luz A. told us that it was only through the help of her school’s migrant advocate that she was able to recover from missing the first month of school each year: “We get graded on things we weren’t there to learn. . . . I’m finally back on track [at the end of March].”[89]

Migrant farmworker children, on average, change schools three times a year, according to earlier studies,[90] a figure that is consistent with Human Rights Watch’s interviews. Some studies report children moving through as many as 10 different school districts in a single year.[91]

Beyond the sheer challenge of transferring schools, the differences between states in start dates, curriculum, and credits also make it harder for migrant children keep up. For example, when Human Rights Watch interviewed working children in Michigan, school had already started in Florida and Texas but not in Michigan. Emily D. explained: “We don’t go in Michigan because school starts late there. I would only go for a day. I’d rather go and help my dad find pickles there. . . . You get behind a lot. Your grades go down. You don’t really learn much.” She said that when she started the 10th grade late, “I thought, ‘Oh my God I’m so behind.’”[92]

A migrant education professional at Immokalee High School in Florida, explained that schools in different states have different criteria for graduation and not all classes transfer. “This frustrates a lot of kids that not every state is on the same channel. This contributes to some kids saying, ‘Screw it, I’m out of here.’” He added, “Some parents put them in school up north or don’t because they don’t know how long they’re staying. Those kids when they come in October, November don’t get credit because they’re not in school so when they finish the semester they have a big fat F. That messes up their GPA [grade point average].”[93] “When they start teaching here [in Michigan], then we go down there [to Texas], they have already moved on,” said Andrea C. “It sucks. I wish I were there.”[94]

Children who try to combine long work hours and school, such as Marcos S., whose experience cutting Christmas trees is described above, often find that their schoolwork suffers. Jaime D. explained how he ended up dropping out of school after he started picking tomatoes at age 16 in central Florida: “I wanted to work and still go to school but I couldn’t concentrate on both. I didn’t know how to do both.”[95] His younger brother also dropped out of high school to pick tomatoes, he said. A study of migrant farmworker students in south Texas found that migrant students were more likely than non-migrants to miss and arrive late to school, sleep in class, and study fewer hours weekly. Migrant students also reported fewer hours of nightly sleep, fewer hours spent with their friends, and more minor illnesses than non-migrant youth.[96]

Migration and afterschool work also prevent children from engaging in the extra-curricular activities that help keep teens in school. Youth described not being able to play soccer or football or join the dance team, and missing prom and homecoming. A 14-year-old girl in Texas explained: “The 8th graders went to Washington this year but I didn’t get to go because it cost $800. Then it got cancelled because of the ‘flu so they went in the summer but I was here.”[97]

Many children described an environment in which they fall behind at young ages and graduating from high school is rare. We spoke with a nine-year-old girl going into the 3rd grade who said she had flunked the 2nd grade and been held back a year. She said she works in the fields when not attending summer school.[98] “I don’t know if I will finish school because it’s very difficult but hopefully I will,” said 15-year-old Elena R. who works periodically in the fields after school. “None of my brothers and sisters finished school.”[99] “Most people I know don’t want to go through being behind so they drop out of high school,” said 18-year-old Luz A. “Most of my friends have dropped out. Little by little they’ve been dropping out.”[100] And a 14-year-old girl who said that no one in her family had graduated told us: “If I finish school, I’m going to shine like a peacock.”[101]

Children who have recently entered the United States from other countries may not know how to access the US education system or may be unable to afford the lost wages. A boy who came to the United States alone at age 15 after his parents died said: “I want to go to school but I have to work. I don’t have time. If I had the chance to work and study I would study.”[102]

The US Department of Education’s Office of Migrant Education runs several programs to support migrant children’s access to education. These include the Migrant Education Program, which identifies migrant children and provides education and support services, such as remedial instruction, school record exchanges, and counseling and assessment services; the High School Equivalency Program (HEP), which helps farmworkers and their children who are 16 or older to achieve a General Education Development (GED) certificate and gain subsequent employment; and the Migrant Education Even Start (MEES), which focused on improving literacy among farmworker families. The Office of Migrant Education also provides $3 million per year in grants to individual states that cooperate with other states to provide direct education and support services to migrant children whose education has been interrupted.[103]

During the 2003-2004 school year, the Office of Migrant Education served more than 488,000 children, but these represented only 54 percent of children eligible for its programs.[104]

[83]US Department of Labor, “The National Agricultural Workers Survey: Public Access Documentation,” (accessed April 27, 2010).

[84] Thomas D. Snyder, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, “Mini-Digest of Education Statistics 2009,” April 2010, (accessed April 27, 2010), p. 35.

[85] California Department of Education, “California Migrant Education Program: Comprehensive Needs Assessment, Initial Report of Findings,” 2007, (accessed April 8, 2010), p. 2. Anecdotally, a migrant education staff member at Immokalee High School, where many students are from farmworker families, told us that 400 to 450 students enter the eighth grade every year and “by the time they graduate it’s 200 to 250. So about half drop out or move out of the area.” Human Rights Watch interview with migrant education staff member, Immokalee, Florida, March 25, 2009.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Ana Z., age 15, Plainview, Texas, July 21, 2009.

[87] Human Rights Watch interview with Olivia A., age 14, Plant City, Florida, March 21, 2009.

[88] Human Rights Watch interview with Jose M., age 17, Saline, Michigan, August 24, 2009.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Luz A., age 18, Plant City, Florida, March 21, 2009.

[90] David Bell, “The National’s Invisible Families: Living in the Stream, Rural Educator, vol. 15, no. 3 (Spring 1994), pp. 27-30.

[91] Michael Romanowski, “Meeting the Unique Needs of the Children of Migrant Workers,” The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, v. 77, no. 1 (October 2003), pp. 27-22.

[92] Human Rights Watch interview with Emily D. (not her real name), age 16, central Florida, March 22, 2009.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview with migrant education staff member, Immokalee, Florida, March 25, 2009.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview with Andrea C., age 17, Saline, Michigan, August 24, 2009.

[95] Human Rights Watch interview with Jaime D. (not his real name), age 20, Bradenton, Florida, March 20, 2009.

[96]Cooper et al, “Comparative Description of Migrant Farmworkers Versus Other Students Attending Rural South Texas Schools: Demographic, Academic, and Health Characteristics,” Texas Medicine, vol. 101 (2005), pp. 58-62; Cooper et al, “Comparative Description of Migrant Farmworkers Versus Other Students Attending Rural South Texas Schools: Substance Use, Work, and Injuries,” Journal of Rural Health, vol. 21 (2005), pp. 361-366.

[97] Human Rights Watch group interview with 12- and 14-year-old girls, Plainview, Texas, July 20, 2009.

[98] Human Rights Watch group interview with 15-year-old girl, 10-year old boy, and 9-year-old girl, central Florida, March 22, 2009.

[99] Human Rights Watch interview with Elena R., age 15, central Florida, March 22, 2009.

[100] Human Rights Watch interview with Luz A., age 18, Plant City, Florida, March 21, 2009.

[101] Human Rights Watch group interview with Blanca S. (not her real name), age 14, and her two friends, Immokalee, Florida, March 25, 2009.

[102] Human Rights Watch interview with Walter R., age 17, Goldsboro, North Carolina, August 6, 2009.

[103] Department of Education Office of Migrant Education website, undated, (accessed April 7, 2010).

[104] Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, “Children in the Fields: An American Problem,” May 2007, (accessed April 14, 2010) (citing information provided to AFOP by the US Department of Education, Office of Migrant Education, February 2007), p. 19, note 76.