DADE CITY — Olivia Perez and Sarah Chavez clicked away on an iPad 2, reviewing Sarah's slideshow presentation about monkeys.
The Pasco Middle School students hadn't used the latest technology before. But thanks to a federally funded program for migrant students, they got two weeks of hands-on opportunity while also honing their reading, writing and research skills.
The girls loved it.
"They're easier than a computer," said Olivia, 11, who expects to travel to Georgia for onion picking season once the classes end. "It's fun."
She and her seven classmates were part of a larger program for prekindergarten through high school aimed at ensuring that the children of families that move around a lot don't lose their academic skills during the lengthy summer break.
The achievement gap between migrant children and others is evident on assessments such as the FCAT, Pasco migrant programs specialist Mary Grace Sabella said. With the support of Title I funds, she said, the district aims to narrow the gap.
"They are really smart kids and they have so much potential," Sabella said. "But their education is constantly interrupted."
This summer, about 125 students were eligible, but not all participated. One concern, particularly in the high school program, was that it did not offer credit and so some students stayed away. Being migrant families, many left town soon after classes ended, too.
One of the key learning aspects for the middle school students was access to technology. Many migrant students do not have computers, tablets and smart phones at home, so the district decided to give them experiences with the most up-to-date items so when they return to school they won't feel hindered.
Teacher Gail Jones said the latest iPads were so new to the school that she was learning to use them right alongside the students.
Otherwise, she said, the students were practicing their "normal skills" with the technology, which simply kept their interest and gave them a head start for the fall.
When not researching or writing, the kids got to sample other software, including educational games.
"Actually, it's really fun," said seventh-grader Vince Hernandez, 12, as he researched his snakes report. "This program is so much fun. ... And it actually is quite interesting."
He could have been at home like many of his peers. But there's nothing to do there but sit inside and read or watch television, he said, "and there's nothing good on TV. I'd rather be here. I love school, actually."
The students in the high school program, geared toward organizing them to get college scholarships, were not quite as enthusiastic.
"My mom made me come," said ninth-grader Hoguer Osorio, 15, who then added, "I am learning more than staying at home sleeping all day."
The small class received lessons on how to write better essays and express themselves better so they can seek more support for college. The course also gave lots of advice on compiling a portfolio of letters and other needed items to apply for scholarships.
"It's pretty fun to come and learn," said freshman Cassandra Presas, 14, as she worked on an essay about two things she would do to improve herself. "I think I'm doing something better, actually learning, trying not to forget."
Teacher Tracy Turner said she hoped to have the students continue work on a notebook that grows over their four years of high school so they'll be ready for what comes next.
"It's all about their future, getting them into college and helping them realize there is a life out there after high school," she said, noting that many times migrant children would be the first in their families to pursue higher education.
Next year, Sabella hopes to expand the program to four weeks instead of two. She talked about putting all grade levels on a single campus to maximize services while minimizing costs such as transportation. And she said she would look into offering credit to the high school students, too.
Of course, with migrant students, family plans might make even the best laid district plans irrelevant.
If they need to travel to make ends meet, that's what they'll do.
"A couple of families put off travel to attend" this summer, Sabella acknowledged. If the program grows next year, "parents will have to decide what to do."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.