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Using Technology to Meet the Challenges of Educating Migrant Students

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Frequent moves and economic hardship create numerous educational challenges for the children of migrant farmworkers in the United States. Even the most conservative estimates project that more than half a million schoolchildren move with their families following seasonal crops each year. Technology can help these students. Included: Education World looks at three programs that use technology to help meet the educational needs of migrant children.

Another Education World Article About Migrant Schoolchildren

For an extensive list of resources about the nation's migrant farmworkers and the story of one school's solution to educating children of migrant farmworkers, don't miss Education World's story Meeting the Educational Needs of Migrant Students.

"Discontinuity of instruction is the major challenge of migrant education," Jean M. Williams told Education World. Williams is deputy executive director for programs for SERVE (an educational consortium headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina) and director of the Anchor School Project.

"Research tells us that if a student moves once in 12 years, he's less likely to graduate from high school," Williams said. "So imagine the life of a migrant child. Every time he moves, he loses something."

The Anchor School Project uses technology to help provide some continuity for migrant students and their families. The project provides laptop computers to participating families. Parents are required to learn to use the computer and must agree to help all children in the family use the computer to keep up with their studies. Parents are given their own e-mail accounts and must check regularly for messages from their children's teachers.

As the families move between Illinois, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, Anchor School staff members go into each local school the migrant children will attend and set up a portable network that enables the students to connect to the Internet. In addition to setting up the network, Williams said, the Anchor instructional support staff also provides professional development to help local teachers work effectively with migrant students.

The Anchor School program also provides services for the children's families, such as information about before- and after-school programs and how to obtain a GED.

A second major challenge of migrant education, Williams told Education World, is that "frequently, migrant children are held to lower standards" than other children. The Anchor School program begins with "the expectation that a migrant child achieve the same high standards as a non-migrant child."

One reason migrant children sometimes fail to achieve standards is that, because of frequent moves, they cannot demonstrate that they have produced work that meets a given standard. The process becomes even more complicated when students must fulfill standards in different states.

To help migrant students demonstrate their accomplishments, Williams said, the Anchor School is developing software that allows students to create an electronic portfolio, a CD students "can take with them to give their new teachers. The CD contains information on their work, where they are in relation to state standards, and examples of their work."

One unique feature of the Anchor program, Williams told Education World, is its relationship with Gargiulo, Inc., a produce grower located in Immokalee and Jupiter, Florida, and in Wastonville, California. Gargiulo, which employs many families participating in Anchor School, has been "a wonderful business partner," Williams said.

"Gargiulo has given us money, made computer staff available to train parents, let us know what the picking schedule will be, and given us space in the corporate office for our after-school program," she said.

"We also have an ongoing partnership with AmeriCorps," Williams told Education World. "We actively recruit former migrant children who are now college students and use them as role models with our elementary school children.

"We have a couple of former migrant students who are on scholarship to Florida State University," Williams said. "They changed their major to education because of their work with the project."

Williams emphasized that Anchor School is a research-based project. "We're constantly evaluating ourselves to see how we're doing." She hopes that in the future, school systems across the country can use the program to help meet the needs of migrant students.


The main thrust of the Kentucky Migrant Technology Project (KMTP) is to help K-12 public schools with a significant migrant population in central and western Kentucky, project coordinator Michael Abell told Education World. KMTP is sponsored through its parent agency, the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative.

The project has three main components, Abell said. The first is student-family educators, who work directly with participating students. This work is done primarily within the schools and involves tutoring and extra assistance to help students stay focused and keep on track in school.

The second component is "the heavy use of technology," Abell said. "We have an online virtual school with more than 50 online courses to model the different educational resources that can be accessed online to overcome mobility problems," he told Education World. Students can make up courses or get extra help.

"A new technology piece," Abell continued, "is the use of PDAs [personal digital assistants] that we've just started over the last year or so. The goal is to use portable technology that students can use even if they don't have an Internet connection at home or at school."

The PDAs can store resources such as a Spanish-English dictionary. With a collapsible keyboard that unfolds to about the size of a laptop keyboard, students can use the devices to write short essays and other homework assignments.

Once students have entered their work on their own PDA, they can use the device's infrared technology to transfer their work to the teacher's PDA, Abell explained. The teacher can then dock the PDA to a workstation and transfer all the students' assignments.

A PDA costs about $150, Abell said. It's an "affordable portable appliance, easier to use than a laptop." In addition, use of the PDAs is "not dependent on having an Internet connection."

This is "one of the first efforts to merge education and technology into an affordable package that can demonstrate results," Abell told Education World.

The third large piece of KMTP, Abell said, is professional development for teachers. "A lot of educators don't have experience with migrant patterns or Hispanic students," he said. "Districts were asking, 'What do we need to look at from a cultural and a curriculum perspective?'" Over the last two and a half years, the number of requests for training has grown, he said.

Educating migrant children is a growing national issue, Abell said, because of the labor shortage in the United States. One of the significant goals of the next few years will be to raise the high school graduation rate among migrant students, he said.


ESTRELLA (an acronym for Encouraging Students through Technology to Reach High Expectation in Learning Lifeskills and Achievement) is a collaborative effort among five states and key partners to demonstrate how technology can be used to improve the achievement of migrant students," Brenda Pessin, director of migrant education services and ESTRELLA director for the Illinois Migrant Council, told Education World.

"In one year, migrant students typically attend at least two schools located in different parts of the United States," Pessin said. "Those schools often have dissimilar course work, testing, and graduation requirements.

"For high school students, those differences are further complicated by difficulties in transferring credits from one school to another, from one state to another," Pessin continued. "School interruption causes students to gradually fall behind in skill building and in credits for graduation. By the time students reach high school, they are sometimes two or more grades behind.

"Student work obligations create another educational challenge," Pessin said. "Students need to work to add to the annual family budget; this can be an obstacle to studying and attending school."

"Finally," she added, "migrant students often are unaware of available career and educational opportunities. They do not believe that college, for example, is an option. Often, they may be the first in the family to graduate from high school, so that seems like their biggest goal."

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Migrant Education, ESTRELLA provides secondary students with laptop computers equipped with modems and software. "By accessing an online curriculum called NovaNET," Pessin said, "students can take courses to meet their home base Texas high school graduation requirements, earn credit for graduation, and prepare for both proficiency and college entrance exams."

Students in the program also use the computers to "communicate with cyber mentors, current and former migrant students who are now attending college," Pessin explained. "In so doing, they learn about post-secondary and career opportunities, how to apply for admission and financial aid, and what college life is like."

ESTRELLA also provides professional development for teachers working with participating students to further their own technological skills, Pessin told Education World. "At the core of the entire effort is intensive interstate coordination which ensures continuity of instruction as students migrate between the five states [Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, New York, and Texas] and 18 sites that are involved in the project."

Students and their parents must agree to participate in the program before the family receives a laptop computer. Then both parents and children attend a training session where they learn to use the computer, to send e-mail, and to access NovaNET.

"Parents have their own 'curriculum group' on NovaNET, and they are encouraged to log on to study English as a second language, prepare for the GED or U.S. citizenship exams, or pursue other areas of interest," Pessin told Education World. She said that there are ongoing opportunities for parents to participate in activities such as workshops designed to increase awareness of post-secondary opportunities and financial aid.

"By providing flexibility in scheduling and online learning opportunities available anytime, anywhere, and at any pace, students and their parents do not have to choose between going to school and going to the fields," Pessin said. "If needed, they can do both -- work during the day and then come to school in the evening to receive instructional support while studying online."

ESTRELLA is targeting several areas in which to build on its successes, Pessin said: "more frequent and more content-specific communication between students and their cyber mentors; greater participation of ESTRELLA teachers in online learning opportunities and increased collaboration between home base and receiving-state teachers; and even more opportunities for parents to learn to use the laptops and become full partners in their children's education."


Migrant Education Technology and Curriculum Resources
This page lists many technology-related projects.

Long Distance Learning
This segment from National Public Radio's Morning Edition (broadcast August 30, 2000) is about ESTRELLA and the use of laptop computers by students from Eagle Pass, Texas.

Children of Migrant Workers Keep Up Studies on the Internet
This New York Times article (August 25, 1999) is about ESTRELLA, a program that provides migrant students laptop computers for studying online.

Migrant Teens Get Online Schooling
This article from MSNBC is about ESTRELLA.

This is the home page of InTIME, the Integrating Technology Into Migrant Education Project, led by the Oregon Department of Education. The purpose of this project is to develop technology programs that will strengthen the academic achievement of migrant children in Oregon.

The Paperless Classroom
This article describes one teacher's experience with the Kentucky Migrant Technology Project.


Article by Mary Daniels Brown
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Originally published 05/24/2001
Last updated 03/12/2008