DOVER — In a cluttered room with an old-fashioned chalkboard, Jessica Tubens has three first-graders and 30 minutes.
Her task today is to familiarize the group with combinations of "s" and other consonants. Eager to succeed, they'll circle letters on the board, read a story about "Stan's" day in school, and build words such as "slam" and "snug" with plastic tiles.
"Que hace?" Tubens asks 7-year-old Jennifer Velasquez, who eyes a picture of a woman with her face buried in a bouquet of roses.
"Smell," Jennifer says, beaming with pride.
If only migrant education were this easy.
For as long as east Hillsborough has had commercial farms, crews have travelled the landscape for work in the harvest season.
At Dover Elementary School, more than a third of the students qualify as migrants, meaning their parents travel for agricultural work.
And those numbers fluctuate throughout the year.
August brings empty seats in the classrooms, with teachers transferred to fill vacancies elsewhere in the district. Starting in November, when the crews arrive, more teachers are added to the school.
Principal Marie Caracciola tries not to complain, as the adjustments save the district money. "We're at a time where everybody has to give up a little bit," she says.
Federal dollars help the school district hire tutors, advocates, reading resource teachers and other staffers, who spread themselves around to serve as many children as possible.
Despite those resources, teachers confront a multitude of challenges as they try to reverse decades of under-performance.
Studies show that, on average, migrant children are less likely to score on grade level on standardized tests and more likely to drop out of school than their peers.
Inadequate English skills are just one factor, said migrant advocates Irma Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico; and Rosanna Rodriguez, who is from the Dominican Republic.
In many homes, they said, the parents speak Misteco, Tarasco or another of Mexico's many indigenous languages.
"Many of our parents are learning Spanish," Rivera said.
Coming from rural regions, the parents might not have attended school beyond the sixth grade.
And meager housing standards limit vocabulary in any language. Living one or two families to a trailer, some children do not know the meaning of the word "sink" or "tub."
When the word "smock" appeared in the first-graders' story book, Tubens made sure the girls knew a smock is a garment used to protect against paint spatters.
Immigration status can result in higher college tuition or fewer scholarship opportunities. It's also hard for parents to get help from charities or government agencies without legal status. And when work slows down in the fields, families often need donations of food and clothing. Lately, "only the churches will help," Rodriguez said.
As if all of those challenges were not enough, teachers say this year could be more difficult.
The warm weather hurt the area strawberry crop. The Florida Strawberry Festival, which signals the end of the season, is starting early this year. That means more families could leave before their children can take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests. When they return, the school will have less of the data it needs to assess their needs.
Looking ahead, Rivera and Rodriguez wonder how their students will adapt to the Common Core curriculum, which demands higher levels of competence and sometimes combines disciplines.
"Our kids were having a hard time with the old curriculum," Rodriguez said. In kindergarten, children used to learn one new letter every week, she said. "Now they are learning two or three letters per week."
When success happens, it is celebrated.
Rodriguez has seen children on the Principal's Honor Roll who she tutored previously as preschoolers.
Caracciola, the principal, said a former student, now in middle school, recently earned a full college scholarship. At the ceremony, "she thanked her fifth-grade teacher," Caracciola said.
Last year's Hillsborough Diversity Educator of the Year, Trapnell Elementary reading teacher Daisy Ramirez, grew up in east Hillsborough with farmworker parents who did not attend school past sixth grade.
A migrant advocate at Durant High School gave her the encouragement and practical advice she needed to complete college. "I was the only one in my family to graduate high school," she said.
Ramirez, 31, said she has often been asked what helped her defy the odds.
There is no simple answer. "I think a lot of it has to do with what lies within the person," she said. "I was always the kind of child who always wanted to read. And I knew I didn't want to pick strawberries. That was something we did on the weekends, and I didn't want to do it."
At the same time, "You have to have someone there to guide you, to hold your hand."
Ramirez said she has noticed a dramatic increase in the number of counselors and advocates since she was in school. "They are available not just for the students, but for the parents too," she said.
Not long ago, Caracciola heard about a charity called KidsPACK that provides packages of easy-to-prepare food that can fit in a child's bookbag on Friday afternoon.
She has 38 students signed up so far. And she's looking for sponsors who can help the school serve more.
"This is a nice school," Caracciola said. "We have teachers who want to be here. And they drive by a lot of other schools to get here."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]