A weekend interview with Mary Grace Sabella, Pasco schools migrant services specialist
Migrant students make up a small and shrinking portion of Pasco County school enrollment. Yet their academic needs, often exacerbated by their family's moves for work, remain steady. After interviewing parents and students, Pasco officials have begun revamping the assistance offered to these students. Migrant services program specialist Mary Grace Sabella spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the efforts under way. She jumped right into the conversation.
I have been out. We were doing a recruitment effort with the social worker. So we were like at egg packing plants and the groves and the farms. ...
When you say you were out recruiting, what do you mean?
Well part of what we do with the migrant education program, which is a federal grant ... is get out in the community and identify migrant families who have kids in school. When we say recruit, that really means tell them about our services. We have to have really in-depth conversations to determine if they're eligible. It's not a black and white situation. You've got to find out where have you been? What have you been doing in the agricultural community? What kinds of crops have you been picking? Did your kids go with you?
That makes a difference? Like the kinds of crops?
Maybe I shouldn't say so much kinds of crops. But when you delve into were you picking peanuts? Were you picking blueberries? What were you doing with the blueberries? Because there's certain activities that are called qualifying activities, and they have to fall under certain criteria. For example, if you are working for a farmer but what you are doing is driving the truck, that is not a qualifying activity. ... So a lot of times with the families they will say, Oh, yeah, I was working at the blueberry farm. But we have to delve farther and ask, What were you doing? ...
Once you do that, are you looking for students for this new tutoring program? Or just for any kind of program?
First we're looking to see if the families have children. If they have children, then my grant can serve the children and the families, from birth to age 21. ... We can qualify them for the services that we specifically provide, which are social work, resources, connecting them to medical resources, housing resources, if they need clothing, if they need food. We don't necessarily provide those things, but we connect them with community resources. We can provide transportation for medical appointments or to register their children for school. That's the social piece. But then the academic piece is identifying what the academic needs are. Do they need school supplies? Do they need help to get their kids registered? Do we need to advocate for them at the school level to make sure their kids get into the right courses, because the migratory lifestyle creates gaps. It might be a gap in getting registered for the right course, so they're not repeating a course they just finished.
How many students are we talking about in Pasco County?
Relatively speaking, not many, as compared to other counties. Right now we have 110. That is including what we call our non-attenders, which are 0-4 years of age. But we also serve them as well. Right here at Pasco High School we only have 16. When you compare us to Hillsborough County next door, the last time I spoke to the supervisor in Hillsborough she told me they have about 2,000.
That gives you the opportunity to come up with things that are more specific and targeted.
Yes. ... One of the things we did was starting a new tutoring program (at Pasco High School). We have had instructional assistants in the classroom. Through the years the migrant program has looked different along the way. Years ago when we had Lykes Pasco plant, we had many more migrant kids. Now our numbers have dwindled and so our needs are different. This year we looked at how our students are doing, where some of the gaps were and what was the need. We talked to parents, we talked to kids.... One of the big gaps was, parents have a hard time helping their kids with homework. When there are language barriers, or time constraints, or lack of understanding about how the school system works, or lack of understanding about what the graduation requirements are. We work to educate them on that. Some parents feel very comfortable coming to the school, sitting down and having a parent conference and saying, My child is failing English. I need to know exactly what to do. Our parents, the language barrier prevents them sometimes from doing that. They just sometimes don't have the skills to advocate for their kids. So some of the grades were looking a little dismal. There's motivation problems. There's the grades. There's feeling like there's no one at home to help with homework. I don't have internet access at home. I don't have a computer. There's all these barriers. So we thought, well, what can we do? We started thinking, What would we do for our own kids? Most people can't afford tutors. So we thought, you know what, let's get a tutor. Let's get somebody who can advocate for the kids. ...
The schools have graduation enhancement coaches. How is that different?
I can't say how it's different or not different. That happens during the school day. Not all of our kids are part of that program. So not all of them are getting that advocacy. Second, this is a program where she is going beyond just classroom advocacy. She (tutor Tracy Turner) has connected with the athletic coaches. She is connecting with the community. She provides if needed transportation. She is really, I would call it, providing a wraparound service for the kids. Plus, it's a less formal setting. She is more than a tutor. She is a mentor. When I say that, it's not to say that all of us as teachers are not mentors.... But it is different. It's outside the school day. It is a different accountability that the kids have, a different relationship, because ... she is not connected to their report cards, to their discipline hearings in school. She is outside of that. ...
Were you surprised that they are making progress so quickly?
Yes. Stunned. I was stunned. Because at progress report time, a couple of the kids were failing English. Progress reports and report cards are four weeks apart. By report card they pulled B's in the class. ...
What do you attribute that to?
I attribute it to her advocating and negotiating with the teachers. And when I say negotiating I don't mean she was compromising for them. She was contacting them and saying, I am the children's tutor. They want to improve. What do they need to do to meet your expectations? Will you allow them to make up this work? Just like if you or I as a parent would be at the school if our children were failing. ...
The goal then is to get the students to advocate on behalf of themselves?
She has already started that. In fact, she will coach them. You need to go to the teacher and ask, May I have more time for this assignment. Or she'll tell them to go to the counselor and ask for this, again, just like you or I would do with our own children as we teach them. It's not that their parents don't love and care for them and want to help them. It's just that they don't know how. They also don't have the English to breach the barrier.
They came from different countries, different cultures.
Absolutely. Different educational systems. And so what's allowed, what's appropriate? It's very hard to know. Can I go in and say, Hey, what's going on with my kid? They are very respectful of the system. ... They know their child is not doing well. They say, You need to do better. But they don't know how to get to the root of what do we need to do to make this situation better.