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Hillsborough program helps migrant students stay on track during pandemic

The Migrant Education Program provides tutoring and much more to over 2,600 children whose families follow the crops.
Students get help with their schoolwork at lunch time through the Migrant Education Program at Marshall Middle Magnet School in Plant City. From left are Amilli Tolentino, 12; Raul Ramirez, 12; migrant advocate Maria Wyatt; and Estephanie Tehuintle, 11.
Students get help with their schoolwork at lunch time through the Migrant Education Program at Marshall Middle Magnet School in Plant City. From left are Amilli Tolentino, 12; Raul Ramirez, 12; migrant advocate Maria Wyatt; and Estephanie Tehuintle, 11. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 9
Updated Nov. 9

PLANT CITY — A hybrid system of education, with some taking classes in person and some virtually, helped students in Hillsborough County get through the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

For students in migrant farmworker families, who spend weeks on the road following the crops, every year is a hybrid school year.

The coronavirus made it worse.

Now, they’re relying more than ever on a federally funded program in the Hillsborough County School District that helps them keep up with classwork — and a whole lot more.

“It is a population in great need,” said Maria Wyatt, 58, a tutor and advocate at Marshall Middle Magnet School and Turkey Creek Middle School with the district’s Migrant Education Program. “We are talking about the basics.”

Wyatt said she has received dozens of phone calls from parents who have no beds for their children and are looking for places they can afford to live.

It’s one of the most challenging times in the history of the program, launched nationwide in 1966 to help migrant children 3 to 21 — regardless of their immigration status ― stay on the path to a high school degree. The Hillsborough program is helping 2,650 students this year with 35 employees and a budget of $2.8 million.

Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Polk and Palm Beach are among the Florida school districts with Migrant Education Programs. The state Department of Health estimates that 150,000 to 200,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families travel and work in Florida each year.

Many of the students are finding ways to excel despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, Hillsborough migrant advocates said.

One of them is Estephanie Tehuintle, 11, a sixth-grader and honor student at Marshall Middle Magnet School in Plant City.

Estephanie was born in the United States to immigrant parents from Mexico. She works with her family in the fields of Plant City, picking strawberries, tomatoes and blueberries. Last year, they traveled to Tennessee to plant peppers before moving back to Florida.

She hopes to become a veterinarian and a community leader so she can help other needy families around her.

“She’s a wonderful student, responsible and very hard-working,” Wyatt said.

Liliana Pedro-Peña, 13, is a seventh-grader and avid reader who’s earning high grades even as she moves with her parents to work the blueberry, apple and strawberry crops. Last year, blueberries took them to Michigan. This year, they live in Plant City.

Setbacks that might seem small to others can have a devastating effect on Liliana’s family. Three years ago, her mother underwent surgery for gallstones and the family started having trouble paying bills. Last year, her father was cited for a traffic violation in Michigan and they had to dip into savings to pay the fine and court costs.

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“Even though my parents didn’t want to tell us, I am smart enough to understand what was going on,” Liliana said. “This shows why it’s important for me to study and prepare.”

Those who work in the Migrant Education Program, as well as counselors and classroom teachers, provide a number of services, including tracking students as they move from place to place, helping parents find ways to make ends meet, and filling out paperwork required of students in the school district, said CarolAnn Mayo, 52, who supervises the Migrant Education Program in Hillsborough County.

“These students are part of our future,” Mayo said, “and we have to make sure they have what they need.”

Those working in the local program encourage families to come get help — in part by earning their trust and respect. They also must work to earn the trust and respect of other migrant advocates.

“When children do not attend school, we go to meet them,” Mayo said. “We connect with their families and with the schools they belong to.”

Like all parents, those who are migrant workers have been eager to see their children return to class after schools shut down for the pandemic and switched to virtual education.

But many have been wary about coming forward to get help for their children because of the stepped-up deportation of immigrants living here illegally under former President Donald Trump. Still other families no longer qualify for help through the Migrant Education Program because fathers left crop work for the booming construction industry.

At the same time, fewer immigrant families are involved in farm work because employers are hiring more people through shorter-term H2-A and other special visa programs. One of them is Jorge Campos, 28, the eldest of three brothers who came to the United States to work in the fields of Plant City for nine months. Campos left his wife and two children in Mexico.

“For farmers and migrant workers, it’s complicated,” Wyatt said.

Farmworker Rocio Leyva, 43, said the Migrant Education Program in the Hillsborough County School District helped her older boys graduate from high school. Next in line are her younger boys, Isaias, 7, left, and Eduardo, 16.
Farmworker Rocio Leyva, 43, said the Migrant Education Program in the Hillsborough County School District helped her older boys graduate from high school. Next in line are her younger boys, Isaias, 7, left, and Eduardo, 16. [ Times ]

The Migrant Education Program helped the two oldest sons of farmworkers Rocio Leyva and her husband, Isaias Macedonio.

Too many children leave school early to work and to make money for their families without thinking about their future, said Leyva, 43, who came from Mexico 24 years ago with Macedonio, 44.

Sons Edgard, 21, and Erick, 18, earned their high school diplomas. Edgard went on to attend Hillsborough Community College and works as a mechanic at a car dealership in Tampa. Erik is studying to be a computer technician.

They are an inspiration to their younger brothers, Eduardo, 16, and Isaias, 7.

“The MEP is part of us and our lives because it has helped my children to study and prepare for the future,” Leyva said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Mirna Rivera-Topke, 62, a Migrant Education Program advocate, is helping as many as 40 people, age 16 to 22, get back on track after they left school. She talks to them about their priorities and goals and encourages them to move forward.

Getting students through high school is the goal of the Hillsborough Migrant Education Program and employees CarolAnn Mayo, left, the supervisor; Grecia Rosa, center, a family recruiter; and Mirna Rivera-Topke, migrant advocate.
Getting students through high school is the goal of the Hillsborough Migrant Education Program and employees CarolAnn Mayo, left, the supervisor; Grecia Rosa, center, a family recruiter; and Mirna Rivera-Topke, migrant advocate. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

A wife and mother of three, the Guatemala-born Rivera-Topke said the pandemic has elevated fears and doubt among those thinking of returning to their education. It makes her work more difficult.

“It’s an everyday challenge, but I’m happy to help,” she said. “I’ve been here for five years, and without a doubt, they have been the most glorious years of my life.”