Story by Deb Seminary, Contributing Author
There were once nine schools in North Dakota offering summer programs for migrants. Currently two are offered in Grafton and Manvel for K-12 students (up to age 21) in migrant worker families.
“There are fewer migrant workers coming to work in the fields, for a number of reasons,” said Judy Gries, Migrant Education Program Administrator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. “Automation is a big deal, and the pandemic has caused some to stay where they are and not travel. The eastern part of the state gets more (migrant workers) that’s why the school programs are there.
North Dakota’s 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 fully funded by the federal government. A migrant worker is defined as a person who moves to another region 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 welcomed 215 students, including just over 30 enrolled in the distance learning program. The summer session lasts seven weeks with an additional two-week extended program. Tutoring and health services are also offered, such as dental and vision care, using local providers.
“Commuting for work creates problems for education,” Gries said. “Students find it difficult to follow. Also, often when teenagers reach a certain age, they also work. We try to catch them where they are to help them graduate. They get a lot of wonderful experiences in the summer program and most parents complain that it is too short. Migrants really appreciate and love education and are very grateful for this opportunity.
The Benavides family is the one that benefited from the North Dakota program. Aracely first visited North Dakota with her husband, Juan Sr., in 2001. He had been traveling 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 from school and took him with her as she delivered watermelons to the workers in the fields.
“He didn’t like being on the pitch,” she said. “At one point he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, I don’t want to work, I want to go to school!’ That’s when I knew he was going to want more than that (to work in the fields). The next day I took him back to school and saw that they needed help in the kitchen. I knew I wanted him to be someone in life, to have a good education, and I thought having the same schedule would help with that. I worked in the kitchen for five years and have worked in different areas of the program since.
Aracely currently works as a recruiter, contacting migrant families so they know there is education available.
“It’s not always easy to get families to send their children to school,” she said. “First, I call the families, talk to them and gain their trust. I tell them to give me the benefit of the doubt, to send their kids someday and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to come back. They still 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 just six months old. He is now a healthy young man who also enjoyed the North Dakota summer program and has just graduated from high school.
“I’m so proud of my two sons,” Aracely said. “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 into A&M and wants to go into business.
Tracking migrant students is relatively easy. In this case, the school in Texas communicates with North Dakota when the family is en route. Aracely ensures that all credits are applied and appear on her sons’ transcripts.
“My sons are successful because our family is strong and committed to this,” she said. “It’s not easy to travel, to make new friends every year. And once the boys were old enough, they also worked in the fields. And I have a wonderful husband. He works so hard; he now has a semi-trailer and can transport beets. He has been such a blessing to us, and we would be nothing without him.
“I am so proud of my family. Even though we had a language barrier, we didn’t stop. Hope this inspires other kids who are considering going to college.