Irasema Scheirer looked out at the 16 second-graders who scattered the floor of her classroom one recent afternoon, and she pointed to a picture of a porcupine fish, the kind that blows up with spikes to protect itself.
"Do you think another animal could gobble it up?" she asks. No way, they respond. Fish, she tells them, are equipped with special tools to help them survive.
In a way, that's also what the RCMA Wimauma Academy has been trying to do for its kids for the past nine years, teaching them to read, to take tests, to aspire to a life many of their parents never attained. These are the children of field workers, hardworking parents who might not read or speak English, and who don't have many other options. A third of the students migrate with their families to fields up North or out West, sometimes missing weeks of class. But they want more.
Scheirer knows this because she was one of them.
A true role model
The little girl hoed sugar beets in Minnesota. She picked cucumbers in Michigan. Even when it rained. Even when it was cold. She dreamed of one day working in an office. Or anywhere with air conditioning.
Scheirer was the same age as her students when her parents decided to migrate North every summer. She'd leave before the school year ended and come back after it began. She had to fight to get promoted to seventh grade, not because of her grades, but because of the class she missed.
But when she was in school, she worked hard — so hard that she graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in early education. Parents look at her and they see what their kids might one day accomplish.
They come into her classroom with grass stains on their pants and Scheirer knows they've been kneeling in the dirt. And they ask about their kids: How are they reading? How are they behaving? Is there anything I can do to help?
So that parents feel comfortable, she gives them a chance to speak to her with no one else around. Once a year, she visits the home of each of her students. But in this sense, she isn't unique.
At RCMA Wimauma Academy, every teacher does.
Doing the 'extra'
"What we're all about is the extra," says school director Mark Haggett. "We've mastered catering to this pocket of the population."
The school, run by the Immokalee-based Redlands Christian Migrant Association, reflects the culture of its Hispanic immigrant population. It celebrates Christmas in the style of a Mexican posada. Its major fundraiser is a soccer tournament.
It also accommodates for the tough schedules of its parents. The school runs its own buses and tailors its own routes. It stays open past sunset. And it employs a family liaison to assist with issues from transportation to immigration.
"I really live every single day with each one of these families," said the liaison, Marcela Estevez. "I know what their troubles are and what they need."
Over the summer, one family on a trip to Miami was stopped by Border Patrol agents, who deported the father. The mother decided to move with her kids back to Mexico. Estevez made sure she had a transfer document that reflected the children's grades and the material they'd learned, so they could be placed at the right level in their new school.
Last year, a kindergartener had to have surgery. The school provided the parents with transportation to and from the hospital. Staffers babysat and fed the boy's three siblings while the parents were gone.
"We try to make them feel like they are family," Estevez said. "We want them to trust in the school. For us, it's really very important that the children stay with us as long as possible. We know that we can make a difference."
How do they know?
This June, the school's FCAT score rose from a C to an A.
A home visit
It's after school. Scheirer drives onto a road that turns to dirt, where street names are spray painted onto signs. Matilde Vasquez greets her at the door.
Her double-wide trailer is tidy and smells like fruit. She leads Scheirer past a shrine set up for the Day of the Dead. They sit on a couch.
"Adrian is a brilliant kid," the teacher starts in Spanish, "and he's reading at a good level."
Vasquez is relieved. Her son had trouble in first grade. Now, his teacher says he's excelling in math. He's hyperactive, but he'll mature. His sister did last year. Vasquez attributes that change to Scheirer, too.
She sees their progress and hopes it continues, but she worries about middle school and its big class sizes. She wonders how they'd do outside the academy's nurturing bubble, but finds comfort knowing the school is raising funds to expand through eighth grade.
They'll stay as long as they can.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.