Moorhead program helps migrant students

MOORHEAD - For close to 11 hours a day, Beto and Ludivina Guerra's four daughters cull on a soybean farm near Comstock, Minn. Once at home, the three eldest take baths and head to Moorhead's Red River Area Learning Center, where they settle down ...

MOORHEAD - For close to 11 hours a day, Beto and Ludivina Guerra's four daughters cull on a soybean farm near Comstock, Minn.

Once at home, the three eldest take baths and head to Moorhead's Red River Area Learning Center, where they settle down for three hours of classes.

For one daughter of the San Juan, Texas, family, school in Moorhead is a chance to prep and retake a graduation test she failed back home this spring. That will keep her dreams of following an older brother to college alive. For another girl, it has fostered a new passion for math.

"We're always up and down with the work we do, so it's helped us a lot," Ludivina said of the Moorhead district's migrant summer program. She added that her daughters are tired but eager to go to school in the evening.

The long-standing program has shrunk considerably in recent years, as fewer migrant families make the trek north. State funding has dwindled, too.


Last year especially, enrollment numbers plummeted after the district tried to roll together the migrant program and summer school for year-round at-risk students. So this year, migrant school is back, and the numbers are slightly up, after some enterprising combining of grants and state funding.

"When we're not getting as much funds, it's easy to throw in the towel and give up," says Deb Pender, the program's director. "But I think there's always a way."

The Guerras, like many migrant families, had a hard time finding work here this summer. More beet farmers in the area are spraying crops with herbicide, making such workers redundant. The Guerras found jobs on an organic farm, but, like an increasing number of migrants from Texas, they said they might not return to the area next year.

Christine Rositas, the district's regional migrant recruiter, said a shortage of affordable housing and the rising cost of the trip keep families away.

The reduced worker flow partially explains a drop last year to only 46 migrant students, from 185 the summer before. There was also the cost-saving decision to combine migrant school with Title I, a half-day program in August that Pender says is "too little, too late" for migrant families. They often start heading back south that month, and they can't leave the fields to pick up children at noon.

So this year, the district combined migrant, homeless and American Indian student grants and funding and launched a seven-week program in June.

In the morning, elementary students have classes with an intense focus on reading and math. In the afternoon, they have special guests or explore the community. They've been to a baseball game, Yunker Farm and a bowling alley.

"They take us everywhere, all kinds of places," says an enthused Xavier Cuellar, 7, who loves the video game "Mortal Combat."


"It makes for a long day for a little kid," said Norma Holland, the district's migrant liaison. "But it's a full day of keeping the kids out of the fields and out of boredom."

Despite a drop in migrant arrivals, enrollment increased to roughly 60 students in all.

Elementary teacher Lindsay Buchholz says these students' academic prowess varies widely. Some know just a little English; others are proficient and avid readers.

Some need help with material they might have missed in transit, such as a fourth-grader who returned to Texas last fall a few weeks after the start of school and missed learning multiplication, which fazed her for the rest of the year.

"We went over the basics together, and she got it, easily," said Buchholz.

But the children get more out of the program than help with academics - what Holland calls "six or seven hours of 'we care.' "

During a recent afternoon session about monarch butterflies, Melinda Pruneda, 6, a first-timer in the program, eagerly raised her hand at visiting instructor Lana Suomala's every question. Butterflies look like worms, she explained confidently, before they wiggle out of their cocoons.

Mere weeks earlier, Melinda had been overwhelmed by the strange place and faces in the program. She cried for home and kept saying "I can't."


There are challenges the district will tackle again next year. At the high school level, the district enrolled a much smaller group than expected, possibly because students are working longer hours to make up for the pricier trip and a harvest season shortened by the flood.

When the program wrapped up last week, some of the high school students who did enroll begged for more time to prepare for tests they'll take before they leave.

Holland hopes the district will be back at it next year: "The need is still there. It's not as great as it was, but it's there."

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