Every day after school lets out, Josue Lopez, 9, and his little brother Erik, 5, go to the library. When it closes at 7 p.m., they come home and play outside while their mother prepares dinner. Their yard is home to soccer balls of various colors and sizes, vibrant potted flowers and a few toys. Erik doesn’t speak much English, but is confident about one thing: “I love toys,” he said, clutching a yellow teddy bear and Capri Sun. “I love toys.” Photos by Ciera Battleson.
In the car on the way to Waldo, three University of Florida students chatter excitedly as densely populated strip malls give way to sparse farmland and lines of deserted storefronts. The students have been friends since high school, so they travel together all the time: to parties, to each other’s houses, on grocery runs.
But today is Wednesday, and Wednesdays are reserved for Libros de Familia, a program where students read to the children of migrant farm workers and immigrants to help teach them English. For the past year and a half, the three have made the same 40-minute drive every week to the house of Elizabeth, Erick and Vanessa to read and play with them. And they rarely miss a session.
Kathryn Broecker, a senior studying geology at the University of Florida, is at the wheel. She explains that she’s had to memorize the route to the children’s house. The GPS can’t pick up the location, which is deep in rural Waldo off the side of a highway. They tried once, she says as the car slowly grinds up the dirt driveway. The GPS took them to an unknown location, and they were hopelessly lost. As Broecker puts the car in park, the children peek out of the house, eyeing them from the door. Now she just goes by memory, she says.
The children swarm the car as Broecker and the two other students — Andres Fernandez and Kyle Burns, both UF international studies students — climb out. Hernandez makes a grab for Erick and swings him onto his hip, releasing a salvo of giggles. The children’s tank-sized dog placidly watches on while various ducks and chickens pick through the marshy yard. The house is about the size of a school portable.
Libros de Familia started about eight years ago as a grant-funded research project headed by Maria Coady, an associate professor at UF’s English Speakers of Other Languages Program, in collaboration with the Florida Migrant Education Program. The federal program, with its strong ties to local migrant families, continued Libros de Familia after Coady’s funding and research ended.
“Our families kept calling,” said Victoria Pelegrina, teaching specialist at the education program who is in charge of finding families for Libros de Familia. “And I thought, ‘Why not?’ The relationship’s already there; it was working beautifully. So I kind of took it under my wing.”
Libros de Familia offers its services to both migrant and immigrant families. A family is considered migrant, and therefore eligible for the Florida Migrant Education Program, if it does not stay in the same place for more than three years. But both kinds of families need all the help they can get when it comes to educating their children.
In the case of Elizabeth, Erick and Vanessa, their parents came from Oaxaca, Mexico, one of the country’s poorest regions. Although they’ve lived in Waldo for the past three years and are considered settled, their mother, Angelica, speaks no English and taught herself Spanish as a child by reading cartoons. Her first language is a dialect of Mixtec, Oaxaca’s indigenous language. Because of that, the children have no English education at home.
This isn’t uncommon for the children of immigrant families, said Pelegrina. Often the children live in secluded rural areas with parents who are limited to one car, if that, and had to stop school at around the fourth grade.
Through Libros de Familia, Angelica said she has seen immense changes in her children. Hernandez, Broecker and Burns have become like family, she said. Not only that, the children’s grades have improved.
Another immigrant family that works with Libros de Familia, the Lopezes, have also seen noticeable strides. Maria Isabel Lopez, mother of Erik, 5, and Josue, 9, said her children’s performance in school has vastly improved after two years of the weekly sessions. She said that recently Josue came home with a note from his teacher complimenting his progress. Simply watching Josue, whose eyes dart across the page as he catches the words, sounding out only the most complex ones, is evidence of the program’s success.
Josue (left) and Erik (right) sit with their mother, Maria Isabel (center), just before they join their father and a family friend for dinner.
Lopez said working with Libros de Familia has been “una experiencia bonita,” a beautiful experience. Because she and her husband work all day and get home late, they don’t have the time to read to their children. And the simple experience of reading to a child, Pelegrina said, is necessary and transformative.
“These kids need to be exposed to books.Books need to become not just a school chore,” she said. “They need to find the magic in reading.” But the migrant families, Pelegrina said, are the ones who struggle the most.
During reading sessions, Josue insists on reading the book himself. While Dr. Seuss is his favorite, he reads what he calls his “chapter books” with just as much enthusiasm.
Every year, about 2,000 migrant families flood Alachua County, piling into motels or the homes of local friends and family, Pelegrina said. They’re here for blueberry season, which lasts from April to June.
In fact, Angelica said that within the week her sister, her sister’s children and others were coming to stay at her home for blueberry season. In total, she has to take care of 12 children during the day as their parents work in the fields.
Harvesting crops brings a decent wage—that is, until the season comes to a close. Then the families pack up and make the move to the next location and the next viable crop.
Some travel to Georgia for the cucumbers. Others cross the country to Michigan for the apples. But the constant moving hits the children the hardest, Pelegrina said. Changing schools every few months is a huge setback, often preventing them from having the same level of education as their peers.
Pelegrina said a boy who recently entered the program has been through five school changes over the course of his education. He starts Kindergarten this year. His family travels as far north as Michigan and North Carolina and as far south as Immokalee, Fla., moving every few months to follow the crops.
Pelegrina went on to say she knows kids who are in sixth or seventh grade and read at a second-grade level. Usually students in this situation would be educated with English as a Second Language services. However, because the children move so frequently, they don’t stay long enough in one place to be evaluated.
“That involves observation from the teacher; it involves taking notes; it involves a lot of paperwork,” she said. “And if they don’t stay long enough, teachers don’t have the time to get the process started. So they either pass them or retain them.”
This pushes children into a cycle that keeps them from excelling in school, Pelegrina continued. Some kids enter early grades having a rudimentary grasp of English. Teachers, who don’t have the time or resources to help the kids, cannot give them the attention they need.
Josue takes a break from playing tag to clean and show off his glasses.
For example, Pelegrina said, she once introduced a boy who had just come from Guatemala to a teacher fresh out of college. She explained that the boy was new to English, but the program would provide tutors and was prepared to make a plan of action.
“She broke down and started crying,” Pelegrina said. “There went her salary, her chances for a raise.”
Pelegrina said she sympathizes with teachers, who are pressured by their schools to focus on high FCAT scores, which bring funding. But as a result, children fall even more behind and are even less likely to catch up. The more they become a “problem” the less attention they get, trapping them in a frustrating cycle.
Fifty percent of migrant students are retained by second grade, Pelegrina said. Of that 50 percent, if they are retained again, 95 percent drop out.
“By the time you get to seventh or eighth grade you think you’re stupid,” she said. “Why not work the fields and make a few hundred dollars?”
That money, she said, could help their parents, who the children see struggle to put food on the table. Pelegrina and others in the Migrant Education Program struggle to emphasize to students that if they drop out, the hundred dollars that seem so much to the 15- or 16-year-olds now will only stay the same. Without a high school diploma, there’s no chance for promotion.
“Even if you want to work the fields, that should be a choice,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but it has to be a choice. I don’t want it to be the only route; the only way to survive.”
Erik hoists up his slightly deflated soccer ball to throw back in bounds, which he and his brother hastily delineated just before their match.
Corrections: in the print version of this story, Andres Fernandez was Andres Hernandez. As well, Angelica was said to know limited Spanish, when she is actually fluent in the language, having taught herself at an early age through Spanish cartoons.