Seasonal scholars in Maine

Posted Aug. 22, 2008, at 9:36 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:20 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — As many as 12,000 migrant workers will help harvest Maine’s crops this year, and while they’re in the fields, many of their children are provided schooling through programs offered by the federal and state government.

“Our primary focus includes advocating on behalf of those children,” says Danna Lee, director of migrant programs for the state, who explains that nearly $1 million a year comes from the federal Department of Education for migrant services in Maine.

The money supports a variety of educational services for minors from birth to age 21, and any youngster without a GED whose parents move residence for jobs in the agriculture, fishing or forestry industries is eligible.

While some members of the traveling labor force come from points in the U.S. as far away as Florida and Texas, there also are many Canadians with dual citizenship as well as a substantial number of American Indians from Maine and Canada, including members of the Passamaquody and Micmac tribes. However, Lee points out, U.S. citizenship is not a requirement for eligibility.

A centerpiece for Lee’s program is the Blueberry Harvest School at the University of Maine at Machias where for three weeks from late July through mid-August children up to age 14 take classes including math, reading, writing and science, nutrition education and art therapy. The recent summer session ended Aug. 15. There also is a physical education program, and the children use the university pool several days a week. There’s a preschool for children beginning at age 3.

Nine teachers and 10 teaching assistants lead the classes, and the faculty includes an art therapist and physical education instructor.

The university’s Community Education and Outreach office provides the staff and rents the facilities to the state Department of Education, but does not make decisions regarding class content, according to director Naida Pennell.

West Bus Service, based in Steuben, provides transportation on four routes in Washington County from Schoodic and Columbia to UMM. Funded by Lee’s program, the company’s buses, used during the rest of the year for public school students, pick up children of migrant workers beginning around 8 a.m. and return them in the afternoon to camp locations where families live in cabins or tents.

This year, more than 100 children participated, down from almost 200 in recent years because, Lee explains, many families have “aged out,” following a national trend where more migrant workers are single, adult men who send money back home.

A contributing element, Lee believes, is that “more families with children are understanding the negative impact of changing schools frequently,” so they try to settle the children in one place and move them less often.

English as a second language is not taught in the Blueberry Harvest School, according to Lee, who points out that most Spanish-speaking children are bilingual by age 5 or 6. Some in the preschool do not fully understand English, she says, but there are staff members who speak Spanish.

A new program begun this year provides evening classes at the camps on a rotating basis for students age 14 to 21 to improve language and math skills. The pilot, Lee says, has been very successful, adding, “I’d like to see it grow in the future.”

Lee says her department is “in the process of rebuilding and expanding our programs” to begin classes for migrant workers’ children in Caribou during broccoli season and for Lubec’s sea cucumber season in midwinter, and is considering others during the apple harvest in Aroostook County.

Availability, she emphasizes, will depend on the number of children in each location who are interested in the programs.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 established guidelines for school programs covering the children of migrant workers, and Title 1-C of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act re-authorized the benefits.

According to Juan Perez-Febles, the Department of Labor’s director of the division of migrant and immigrant services, close to 90 percent of visiting workers in Maine are from the Central American nations of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Moving with the seasons, these migrants fill the needs of apple growers in the fall, the fishing industry in winter, broccoli farmers and forestry in spring and summer, as well as the egg business year-round.

The workers, Perez-Febles says, are part of the “eastern stream” who make their way from Florida’s orange groves through Georgia’s peach and pecan harvests to New Jersey’s vegetables and eventually to Maine in August.

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