Education Programs Aim to Keep Migrant Families Together

Sep 19, 2017

Museum Director Monika Bridgforth meets with children role-playing at the exhibit of the Cobb Island Hotel front desk.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Each year migrant workers travel up the coast spending part of the season in Virginia's tomato and potato fields and poultry houses. Moving means their children miss school, so federal grants allow states to fund summer school programs to keep them caught up. The Eastern Shore has Virginia's largest population of migrant workers, but a majority are no longer able to bring their families.

In late summer, the humidity hangs heavy over this peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay. Migrant workers are out in the fields. Their children are attending summer school. At the Barrier Island Museum, they line up, anxiously waiting a turn at playing hotelkeeper.

These kids are getting a condensed version of the museum's regular school year program called My First Field Trip. Monika Bridgforth is the museum director.

“The children come for high quality art and then they do a music lesson and they get to either check into the Cobb Island Hotel or have a picnic on Hogg Island or see our twisted chimney in the attic, they learn a little bit of history here.”

Most kids stay for the first few months of school, then return to Florida where the migrant work cycle begins. Diane Gladstone, who heads Accomack County's programs for migrant children, says each year there are less younger children.

“We have more older children in our summer school this year than we've ever had before. Four years ago we had a major influx of 16 to 18-year olds, who had never been to school or they had not been to school since fourth grade or sixth grade.”

One reason for the influx of teens is tighter immigration laws that make it difficult to bring non-working family members. Another is most companies no longer house the families of workers. Of the more than 1,400 workers this year, only 110 were non-working family members.

Giovanni Larreinaga is in his final year at Virginia Commonwealth University. The son of migrant workers, he grew up on the Eastern Shore and worked two summers at the summer school program.

“A lot of families decide to stay and just send one person to work for four months, five months. A family is to be together, so if they're separated, it's really hard.”

Most send working aged sons and fathers. To help the teens, Gladstone says Accomack and Northampton Counties are partnering with the community college so they can attend a literacy course.

“So, I've got kids in that program who will go to the community college from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then they'll go to the chicken plants, at night, and then get off. And they would be the ones in the high school that would be sleeping.”

Migrant workers who do bring their children often rent houses outside the camps. Maribel Manguia works for the migrant children's program at Northampton County Public Schools. She says the summer school programs are vital to keeping families together.

Giovanni Larreinaga plans to attend VCU's medical school next year.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

“Before some of the moms wouldn't work because they had smaller children. Now everybody in the family has to go to work. If a family comes in and they have children, there's benefits for them and both parents go to work.”

Larreinaga plans to attend VCU's medical school next year so he can become a surgeon. He says there's another reason the summer school program is so important.

“They see their mom or dad or someone they know wake up at five in the morning to leave and they don't come back until eight or nine. And the only thing they know is moving back and forth, back and forth seeing fields of tomatoes or fields of watermelons, fields of cucumbers. Having this program will make that change. They'll see different things. They'll see a door to be someone in life and to be able to go to college and become whatever they want to be.”

President Trumps' budget included a slight increase in funding for the federal grant program. If Congress approves it, Virginia will receive a little over a million dollars next year.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association