Local schools prepare for students during spring harvest

Published 7:34 pm Friday, March 6, 2015

As warmer weather inches closer, local farmers aren’t the only ones anticipating the coming harvest months.

Every spring, hundreds of migrant workers move into Decatur County for the summer harvests of corn, tomatoes and melons. Many of those workers also bring their families that include school-aged children.

The Decatur County School System offers summer classes to accommodate the migrant students through the Migrant Education Program, a federally funded program designed to reduce the negative consequences the children may face from frequent moves. Last year the system served more than 200 migrant students, but that number may vary year to year, said Kathy Varner, DCSS federal programs director.

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“It’s a lot of preparation and planning, all to not know exactly how many you’re going to serve, but we’ve held steady for years,” Varner said. “We’ve had this migrant summer school program going on for a decade or more.”

Varner said that the majority of the families that come in are Hispanic, but recent years have seen increases in Haitian migrants who speak French Creole instead of Spanish, leading the system to find help for the language barrier.

“We have staff members who help that are bilingual. A few of our teacher are bilingual. Our high school students who are apprentices — we make sure they’re all bilingual, and some of them used to be migrant students, so they really understand the lifestyle and the challenges that these students have as they’re traveling around,” Varner said.”We have two ladies who come to us from Florida who are fluent in French Creole and understand the culture. That really helps with that population.”

The students are typically only in the area for a few short weeks. The families start slowly rolling in during April, but the largest influx comes in late May in conjunction with Decatur County’s agricultural seasons. A large portion of the families are gone by July 4 when the corn harvests slow down or finish.

What Varner and system staff try to do is help those students retain what they’ve just learned as well as preview what they will likely learn at the next grade level.

“The problems migrant students face are the disruptions in their education,” Varner said. “When we get students in the school year, they may have been in five or six different school systems in different states. The interruption is difficult. You could easily move around and miss an important concept for your grade, because you never were in school at the right time.”

The system also helps make sure the students are healthy by partnering with a group from Emory University Medical School that completes health and vision screenings. The operation continues with the educating parents or older students on health issues, Varner said.

“The migrant staff also serves a section of the migrant population of Out of School Youth and Drop Outs,” Varner said. “These are students under the age of 22 who desire to receive services such as English lessons or lessons about hygiene, careers and other topics. These students are served late in the evenings after long hours working in the fields or on Sundays.”

The federal programs department receives a lot of support and help from other departments and organizations to help get students to the summer program, fed and tries to make sure they leave with school supplies.

“The parents love that their children are safe, they’re taken care of and they’re getting the academic help that they need,” Varner said. “They deserve it. Every child deserves it.”

Anyone who would like to donate toiletries, school supplies, books or clothes can contact Varner at kvarner@dcboe.com.