SICKLERVILLE, N.J. - The work is grueling, the pay meager and home might be a crowded bunkhouse or the back of a van, but migrant families in southern New Jersey for the blueberry harvest receive a perk worthy of their labors.
Their children, whether toddlers or teens, automatically qualify for a free, state-of-the-art summer school, with multilingual teachers encouraging pupils they might not see again after the berry season ends. While the parents toil in the fields, their sons and daughters might be exploring the Internet or practicing with a precision drill team.
Many of the families swiftly move on to late-summer jobs in Maine or Michigan, then return to Mexico or Florida for the winter before starting a northward trek again in the spring. Meanwhile, their children experience school in short, disrupted spurts. Summer school, part of an imperfect but ambitious federal initiative, is intended to fill the gaps and keep the children within academic striking distance of their more stable peers.
The challenges are numerous. Many of the children speak little English, and come from a hodgepodge of cultures and disjointed educational backgrounds. Some have never seen an eye doctor or dentist. Older children may prefer to be earning money in the fields, and staff members know they have only six weeks to teach.
“One of the biggest challenges for the teachers is not having the satisfaction of seeing the long-term benefits of their work,” said Kathy Freudenberg, director of a nine-county New Jersey summer program that serves about 1,000 migrant children.
An estimated 860,000 school-age children in the United States have migrant parents, mostly Hispanic, and about 550,000 of them receive some form of federally subsidized education. A $380 million budget covers both school-year and summer programs, which are administered by the states and considered vital in helping the children improve their relatively low chances of finishing high school.
Alma Ramirez, 14, is among those intent on graduating. Along with her parents and three siblings, she came to New Jersey two years ago from a village in Mexico’s Hidalgo state. She finished ninth grade in Clayton, N.J., this spring and now, while her father works in a nursery, is attending summer school.
Although she has learned English quickly, the language barrier has left Alma feeling isolated at her regular school and the summer program is a pleasant break. “There are just one or two kids [at Clayton] who speak Spanish,” she said. “But here I have a lot of friends who do.”
Other migrant children also appreciate the chance to not be an outsider and to avoid the teasing they often suffer at mainstream schools. “Americans have a problem with migrants,” Miss Freudenberg said. “They want them to do the menial jobs, but don’t want them living in the community.”
Alma’s summer program is based at a large elementary school in Sicklerville, halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City in the heart of New Jersey’s blueberry country. About 200 children are picked up from fieldside camps and run-down motels by a fleet of buses, brought to school in time for breakfast, then taken after classes to a summer camp for recreation and supper before heading back to their families.
Most of the families are from Mexico, and others are from Haiti. Many of the children were born in far-flung American farming towns and thus are U.S. citizens. “The Haitian and Mexican kids are very distant; they don’t know each other’s culture,” Miss Freudenberg said. “We try to promote harmony.”
To woo teens into class, the school offers some $6-an-hour part-time jobs, such as cleaning the cafeteria. Juan Carlos Castenada, a 14-year-old who has such a job, said the summer school is much bigger and better equipped than his three-classroom school in Toluca, Mexico.
“Here,” he said, “you get a lot of help with the things that you need.”
Daily life can be tough. Haitian-born Wesley Jarbath, 15, came to New Jersey from Florida only with his sister and grandmother, who works in a berry-packing house. He lives apart from them in a men-only bunkhouse, attending summer school while the men work. He has another problem: “I’m allergic to blueberries,” he said.
For all the debate over immigration policy, the nationwide migrant-education program represents a notable, bipartisan commitment to assisting these nomadic, low-income families. Some of the migrants have immigration papers, but many are here illegally. Under federal policy, all are permitted and encouraged to send their children to school.
“We’re not in the business of asking for documents,” said Francisco Garcia, head of the federal Office of Migrant Education.
Staff members say most parents support the summer program and flock to the annual Parents Night.
“Education is a key reason a lot of these families came to America. They want something better for their kids,” Miss Freudenberg said. “The kids really want to be in summer school. You can tell by the way they revere the teachers and staff, before they become Americanized.”
The program’s chief recruiter is Andrea Hutchinson. She sets out by car each afternoon, tracking down families at the end of dirt farm roads to register their children.
Most of the parents are delighted to sign up their younger children, but many of the children 12 and older, who legally are able to pick berries for pay, choose work over school. Evening English classes are offered for them.
Miss Hutchinson said farm owners generally cooperate, in part because they face federal fines if young children are spotted around the fields.
At the Cosmo blueberry farm in the town of Atco, Miss Hutchinson and two colleagues signed up several children of newly arrived migrants. One father, Fortino Ramirez, said his family, including four school-age children, will move on to Michigan after the blueberry season ends, then to Florida for the winter and North Carolina next spring.
“I’d like things to be more stable,” he said in Spanish. “But we need to come and work here. We live better here than in Mexico.”
The Sicklerville program accommodates children as young as 3. A separate Migrant Head Start Program accepts children as young as 6 months.