ERIC Identifier: ED478061
Publication Date: 2003-07-00
Author: Gibson, Margaret A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Improving Graduation Outcomes for Migrant Students. ERIC
This Digest explores several key factors that contribute to the academic
persistence and achievement of high-school-aged migrant youth. The discussion
draws from research in one California high school and from the broader
literature on promoting educational success for working-class minority youth.
BACKGROUND OF STUDY
As of July 2002, there were 819,000
migrant children nationwide.  These children are among the most disadvantaged
in the United States due to the combined effects of poverty, poor nutrition and
health care, and high absenteeism from school related to work responsibilities
and family mobility. To be eligible for migrant services, a child must have
moved from one school district to another within the past three years to obtain
temporary or seasonal work in agriculture or fishing, or to accompany a parent
or guardian seeking this kind of work. Secondary students who no longer migrate
may continue to be serviced through credit accrual programs until graduation.
Many migrant children fall behind academically as they progress through
school. The best and most recent national studies of school completion rates
(now more than a decade old) estimated that only about half received a high
school diploma (State University of New York [SUNY] Oneonta Migrant Programs,
1987; Vamos, 1992). By contrast, 77% of the migrant students who entered the
study school, Hillside High School (HHS), in the fall of 1998 completed 12th
grade 4 years later; another 8% remained in school pursuing a GED.  In a
comparison sample of nonmigrant Mexican-descent students, only 39% graduated
from high school on schedule.
Hillside High School is one of two public high schools in the Appleton
Unified School District. It serves students from two distinct communities:
Appleton, a predominantly Mexican and Mexican American working-class community,
the economy of which is based largely on agriculture; and Hillside, a mostly
White, middle- to upper-middle-class professional town.
Most of the migrant students in the focal sample lived in Appleton and were
bused each day to Hillside due to severe overcrowding at Appleton High School.
Like their counterparts nationwide, Appleton's migrant workers faced severe
hardships that impacted their children's schooling. Three fourths of the parents
had attended school for 8 years or less, mostly in rural Mexico, and few of the
parents spoke English with ease. As a result, many of the parents were unable to
assist their children with schoolwork, particularly in the upper grades.
Furthermore, the average migrant laborer in Appleton earned just $9,000
picking and packing fruits and vegetables during the 5-month agricultural
season. Those with more skilled and steady work (for example, tractor drivers or
crew foremen) still earned less than $20,000 annually. Given the very high cost
of housing, almost all Appleton migrant families lived in poverty. Nearly half
left the area each December when unemployed, many returning to Mexico. About 20%
of their children missed at least some school days during January.
THE SCHOOL AND STUDENTS
Using both qualitative and
quantitative methods, the author and her coresearchers followed the school
performance of all 160 HHS migrant students in the Class of 2002 from 9th
through 12th grades. Sources of data included extensive participant observation
at the high school; student surveys; and interviews with students, teachers, and
Migrant Education Program staff. Also gathered were data on students' grades,
credits earned, college preparatory courses completed, and their ongoing
enrollment status in high school.
By the time they entered HHS, most migrant students were behind academically.
Only one third were placed directly into college prep English and math classes.
Most also coped with a sense of not belonging at HHS. As one migrant student
explained, "You feel that you don't fit in. Just . . . passing through the quad,
they [White students] don't even notice you. And it's like you don't belong
there. It's weird." While White students and teachers might have regretted the
social divisions and tensions that existed between student groups, few had any
real comprehension of the lives of the migrant students outside of school or the
deep sense of exclusion they experienced in school (Gibson & Bejinez, 2002).
FACTORS SUPPORTING STUDENT SUCCESS
Despite the many
obstacles, most HHS migrant students graduated from high school. Evidence from
the study suggested that their success was due in large part to several
conditions created by the Migrant Education Program (MEP) staff, including the
provision of supplemental academic support, creation of a sense of belonging,
development of supportive relationships, and strengthening of
Providing institutional and academic support. The MEP staff provided a wide
array of supplemental academic support services, including:
constant academic guidance to assure that students took all courses required for
high school graduation
summer school and supplemental course work for students who needed to make up
courses or credits
computers, printers, and Internet access
placements in paid after-school jobs
college counseling and precollege transition support
ongoing advocacy and mentoring
connections to other school resources
Creating a sense of belonging and community. For many working-class minority
students, developing a caring relationship with a teacher or some other adult at
school is essential to creating a sense of school membership (Valenzuela, 1997).
Moreover, a feeling of belonging in school appears to be a precondition to
academic motivation, participation, and achievement (Gonzalez & Padilla,
1997; Goodenow & Grady, 1993; Osterman, 2000). A sense of belonging may be
especially important for migrant students due to the status differences that
exist between them and members of the dominant society, their high rate of
absenteeism, and the disconnect that they experience between home and school
The MEP office at HHS provided a place where migrant students felt
comfortable gathering for social as well as academic reasons. The walls were
covered with symbols of Mexican culture and pictures of former students and
their college acceptance letters. Students felt free to speak in Spanish or in
English, and during lunch time the migrant staff often played Spanish music. In
many ways, the MEP office served as a social and cultural "safe space" for
students (Fine, Weis, & Powell, 1997), a location where they could enjoy a
positive and warm sense of community, often absent to them in the larger school
Migrant educators often served as surrogate parents, and they worked
constantly to build and maintain a sense of shared trust and friendship with the
students. MEP teachers routinely spoke with students about their futures and
discussed alternatives to a life working in the fields. Moreover, as one student
commented, "They pay attention to your problems and help you out." We found
caring relationships between migrant staff and students to be at the very heart
of the program's success (for more details, see Gibson & Bejinez, 2002).
Developing supportive relationships. A sense of caring and community is
necessary but alone is insufficient to promote academic persistence and
achievement among economically marginalized migrant youth. Children raised in
poverty often lack access to the kinds of social relationships with teachers and
college-bound schoolmates that can provide them with resources needed for
academic success. In such cases, educational programs must themselves be
structured in ways that provide these in-school connections and support
(Stanton-Salazar, Vasquez, & Mehan, 2000).
Like many of their counterparts nationwide (Perry, 1997), the migrant
educators at HHS had a deep understanding of the students' lives outside of
school and their educational needs--an understanding developed in many instances
from staff members' own backgrounds as former migrants. This helped them to
connect with the students and to develop relationships as trusted mentors,
tutors, role models, counselors, and advocates.
Linking home, school, and community. Students who believe they must conceal
parts of their identity at school, or who feel pressure to shed their home
cultures, are likely to experience a sense of alienation at school (Gibson,
1998). On the other hand, when students feel their identities are affirmed, they
are more likely to engage in the schooling process.
Understanding this, the HHS migrant educators actively worked to validate the
important relationships that existed among students' home, community, and school
worlds. For example, they maintained close contact with parents through phone
calls, home visits, and special events designed to attract parent participation.
Additionally, they met individually with parents to review their children's
academic progress. They also encouraged students to become involved in school
and community activities through the work of the Migrant Student Association
(MSA), a student-run club whose mission was to promote higher education,
organize school and community service activities, and celebrate cultural
differences. As students explained, "We feel wanted and we feel part of the
school by doing activities with MSA."
MSA was an important site for creating, sustaining, and asserting a positive
Mexican presence within the larger HHS school community. The club also served to
promote peer support and forge a bond among its members through members' shared
linguistic and ethnic backgrounds and the club's many activities. Through their
participation in MSA, students came to associate being Mexican with leadership
and academic achievement (Gibson, Bejinez, Hidalgo, & Rolon, in press).
MEP offered a space, both as a physical site and
as a set of relationships, that served to nurture migrant students' evolving
identities and to provide them with access to the kinds of institutional support
required for school success. It created an academic and social community that
fostered school engagement and participation. MEP enabled migrant students to
maintain and develop their cultural roots and values while also being successful
in school. Students were encouraged to become proficient in English as well as
Spanish and to gain mastery of the dominant European American culture while
sustaining strong roots within their Mexican community.
MEP helped those most at risk of dropping out to both persist in school and
prepare for college, including students who never previously viewed this as a
F. Sabbah, Director, Migrant Education Region XI, personal communication, July
The research was made possible through generous grants from the U.S. Department
of Education/OERI (#R305T990174) and the Spencer Foundation (MG #199900129). As
a condition of conducting this study and gaining access to student records, the
high school and students were promised anonymity. Accordingly, all names are
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