Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer
There were once nine schools in North Dakota offering migrant summer programs. Currently, two are offered in Grafton and Manvel for K-12 students (up to 21 years of age) of families of migrant workers.
“There are fewer migrant workers coming to work the fields, for several reasons,” said Judy Gries, North Dakota Department of Public Instruction’s program administrator for migrant education. “Automation is a big one, plus the pandemic caused some to stay where they were and not travel. The eastern side of the state gets more (migrant workers), so that is why the school programs are there.”
The North Dakota Migrant Education Program is authorized by Part C of Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended (ESEA). It is entirely funded by the federal government. A migrant worker is defined as a person who moves to another area to find employment. North Dakota sees an influx of seasonal workers in the spring and summer, and some move their families with them wherever they go.
Last year, North Dakota served 215 students, with just over 30 enrolled in the distance program. The summer session lasts for seven weeks with an extended supplemental two-week program. There are also tutoring and health services offered, such as dental and vision, using local providers.
“Moving around for work creates problems for education,” said Gries. “It is hard for students to keep up. Plus, often when teens reach a certain age, they are working, as well. We try to catch them where they are to help them graduate. They receive a lot of wonderful experiences in the summer program and most parents complain it is too short. Migrants really value and love education and are so grateful for this opportunity.”
The Benavides family is one that has benefited from the North Dakota program. Aracely first traveled to North Dakota with her husband, Juan Sr., in 2001. He had been going to Grafton with his family for many years. She worked in the fields and would send their three-year-old son, Juan Jr., to preschool.
One day, she kept him home from school and took him with her as she was delivering watermelon to workers in the field.
“He didn’t like being in the field,” she said. “At one point he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to work, I want to be in school!’ It was at that moment I knew he was going to want more than this (working in the fields). The next day I took him back to school and saw they needed help in the kitchen. I knew I wanted him to be someone in life, to have a good education and thought having the same schedule would be helpful for that. I worked in the kitchen for five years and have worked in different areas in the program ever since.”
Aracely currently works as a recruiter, contacting migrant families so they know there is education available.
“It is not always easy to get families to get their kids to school,” she said. “First, I call the families and talk with them and gain their trust. I tell them to give me the benefit of the doubt, send their children one day and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to come back. They always love it.”
The Benavides’ other son, Angel, was born in North Dakota and had to have his first surgery for a heart defect when he was only six months old. He is now a healthy young man who also enjoyed the North Dakota summer program and is a recent high school graduate.
“I am so proud of both of my sons,” said Aracely. “Juan Jr. just graduated as a civil engineer from Texas A&M - the first in his father’s family to graduate from college. Angel is already accepted to A&M and wants to go into business.”
Keeping track of migrant students is relatively easy. In this case, the school in Texas communicates with North Dakota when the family is on their way. Aracely makes sure all of the credits are being applied and appear in her sons’ transcripts.
“My sons are successful because our family is strong and committed to this,” she said. “It is not easy traveling, making new friends every year. And once the boys were old enough, they worked in the field, too. And, I have a tremendous husband. He works so hard; he now has a semi-truck and can haul beets. He has been such a blessing to us, and we would be nothing without him.
“I’m so proud of my family. Even though we had a language barrier, we didn’t stop. I hope this inspires other kids who are considering going to college.”