Every year, migrant students follow the eastern stream with their families to pick crops in season — even if it disrupts their education.
As a kid, Jorge Salmeron associated his June birthday with moving.
He grew up working in farm fields alongside his parents and 10 siblings, picking strawberries, squash, cucumbers and blueberries. When the growing season came to an end in Florida, his family would pack up their van and follow the eastern stream to Michigan to pick blueberries.
Sometimes Salmeron, the third eldest in his family, knew when the move was coming. Other times his father would show up to get the kids after school, the van already loaded.
“Like the rest of the migrant kids, we would travel,” Salmeron said. “In my experience, we would travel around April or May and school hadn’t ended yet. Since we didn’t complete the year, we had summer school in Michigan.”
The living conditions were dependent on the crop or the grower and his family often traveled to the next state as soon as possible to get decent housing. It wasn’t a guarantee.
“Picking strawberries is hard on your back, legs and joints. You’re sore by the end of the day. Sometimes I could feel the icicles in the leaves while I was picking. My hands were numb for the first few minutes. I still can relate to the kids here in school, to the hours that you spend working in the fields.”
— Jorge Salmeron, migrant advocate at Durant High School
Once the season in Michigan ended, Salmeron and his family would travel back to Florida, where most of his classmates were already well into the school year. He didn’t always attend the same school either. Salmeron estimates that he went to about 12 to 14 different schools from elementary to high school.
“We would come back to school late,” Salmeron said. “That’s still a trend that’s happening with some of the families.”
Salmeron doesn’t travel much on his birthday anymore. He’s settled in the Dover area where he grew up, working as a migrant advocate at Durant High School.
His story is a reality for 42% of the nation’s three million farmworkers. It is also one that migrant students in his classroom can relate to — and one he tells them that they, too, can overcome.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Most of Salmeron’s students work in the fields. Some start working in the fields at age 12, the minimum age required for farm work by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. According to Student Action with Farmworkers, migrant students who are 12 and older work between 16 to 18 hours per week in the fields.
Nationwide, the graduation rates aren’t much better. Traveling disrupts students from their schoolwork. When they return to their home base, sometimes as late as October or November, the next school year has already started. In 1994, 60% of migrants students in the United States dropped out of school.
But at Durant High, his alma mater, Salmeron is doing his best to change those statistics. For the last seven years, 90% of migrant students at Durant graduated, with 100% of the students graduating in 2010 and 2014.
“The other eight to nine percent end up getting certificates of completion,” Salmeron said.
The certificate indicates that a student completed high school but did not meet all of the requirements for graduation. For many migrant students, it is low scores on the FCAT Reading Comprehension Test that prevents them from otherwise receiving their diploma. Since many migrant students grow up learning English as a second or even third language, the comprehensive test can be a challenge.
Though it shows that the student did complete high school, many employers view a certificate of completion far differently than a diploma.
As a former migrant worker, Salmeron said its important for him to encourage his students to graduate and pursue a better life. He has that same drive for his students now that he had for his own education when he graduated from Durant in 2000.
“I just knew that I wanted to better myself in life,” he said. “I wanted to be someone in the community to help out. My goal was to go to college.”
Salmeron’s family migrated from Guerrero, Mexico, when he was 7 years old, in search of a better life. He lacked proper documentation until he reached high school. His family maintained that education was important, so Salmeron did his best to stay on top of his schoolwork.
It wasn’t easy. By the time he was 12, Salmeron was working hard enough to maintain a life for himself and three of his family members.
“Picking strawberries is hard on your back, legs and joints,” Salmeron said. “You’re sore by the end of the day. Sometimes I could feel the icicles in the leaves while I was picking. My hands were numb for the first few minutes. I still can relate to the kids here in school, to the hours that you spend working in the fields.”
When Salmeron was 14 and starting high school, he returned from a summer in Michigan to Durant. Deciding that he couldn’t move forward with constant setbacks, he asked his parents if he could talk to them after dinner one night.
“I said, ‘All my life, you’ve been telling me education is the most important thing,’” Salmeron said. “‘I would like to travel after school ends and come back when school starts. If you can do that, I promise I’ll work harder in the summers and in the afternoons. I would like for you all to support me because I want to play soccer.’”
Salmeron added that if his parents didn’t agree to the terms, he had plans of dropping out of school entirely.
His mother agreed immediately. Salmeron graduated from Durant with a 3.9 GPA and earned scholarships to schools for soccer, cross-country and track. He worked in the fields until the last summer he went to college and then went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Florida Southern College with a cross-country scholarship.
Salmeron has paved the way: his brothers and sisters also were able to travel on dates that coincided with the start and end of their school years.
“I did the best that I could to do everything I could,” Salmeron said. “I was kind of preventing my younger siblings from all traveling and moving. The older siblings are the ones that experience the migrant lifestyle. We do more of the harder labor.”
Now, Salmeron is having that same conversation again — this time, with the parents of his migrant students at Durant.
While many of Salmeron’s students still travel, some are allowed to stay with family members for a short or extended period of time to complete school or they only miss one to two weeks of school when the school year begins.
“I’ve seen it more in the last two to three years,” Salmeron said. “Kids are sent with their family members, especially seniors.”
When it comes to their education, Salmeron doesn’t accept any excuses from his students. He offers tutoring for students before school, during lunch, after school and on Saturdays. Students are allowed to use the computers in
his classroom to do credit retrieval if they miss school or if they don’t have computers at home that they can use, and he assists with college applications and financial aid. He encourages them to keep their grade point averages high during the school year, that way they will be in good shape if they miss or have to make up a final exam at the end of the school year.
For students who miss too much school, Salmeron offers a multitude of programs, including the High School Equivalency Program, which is available at the University of South Florida for students who are migrant workers or who have parents who are migrant workers.
For other students who fall behind, Salmeron encourages them to enter the Farmworker Jobs and Education Program, which offers free GED classes and free ESOL classes to help students learn English.
“Through life experiences, I’m relating to them,” Salmeron said. “I’m not just saying things. They know that it’s true.”
They know it because they’ve seen it. If they remained focused, Salmeron’s students are aware of what they can become — high school and college graduates, football players, artists, accountants, veterinarians. A migrant advocate, like Salmeron.
Their proof is standing at the front of their classroom.
Contact Emily Topper at [email protected]. Amber Jurgensen contributed to this report.
Each year, migrant students at all three area high schools follow the stream to pick berries in different seasons:
Marco Martinez lights up when he talks about his experience playing football for the Durant Cougars.
It was his dream come true. Growing up, playing football didn’t seem like it would be an option for Martinez, who played on the offensive line this past year. He started picking strawberries when he was about 12, mostly working during the weekends and on breaks from school. He often stooped and picked for 10 hours or more at a time.
Football was a respite from the labor-intensive work Martinez was used to.
After constantly being recruited by the school’s coaches, Martinez enlisted the help of Jorge Salmeron, who is both his guidance counselor and second cousin, to convince his mother to let him play. The school’s coaches also talked to her.
Instead of traveling to Michigan, where he usually picks blueberries from June to September, Martinez was able to stay at home this past summer and play football. Usually, he would return to school around mid-September, when the football team had already finished training and played a few games.
When he graduates this year, he hopes to attend Hillsborough Community College.
“It’s challenged me to do better in my life,” Martinez said. “I see how people suffer. That’s the only way of living they’ve got.”
Martinez, the third eldest of seven children, got motivation from his brother. His brother was the first person in the Martinez family to go to college and currently attends the University of South Florida.
Salmeron, too, motivates Martinez. It was Salmeron who told Martinez that if he really wanted to play football, he should go for it.
“I want to be a migrant advocate and help people,” Martinez said. “I see how [Salmeron] helps us. I don’t care where, I want to help people.”
esus Garcia started helping his mom in the fields at an early age.
Now a sophomore at Plant City High School, Garcia and his family go to Georgia to pick blueberries as soon as school ends, usually arriving in Georgia on June 10. After a month in Georgia, they head to Michigan, where they pick blueberries until mid-September.
“We usually work every day but Sunday,” Garcia said, noting that picking usually starts at about 7:30 or 8 a.m. “Over there it gets dark at 9:30, so we pick until 7 p.m. or so.”
Garcia misses about the first two weeks of school. He is able to catch up on his course work within two to three weeks.
“Usually math and science are the hardest to catch up on,” he said. “They teach fundamentals and build on them.”
Garcia’s family used to pick blueberries in North Carolina around mid-May before heading to Michigan, but the family altered their travel plans so that the children could finish school for the year. Only missing two weeks of
school every year has allowed Garcia to participate in a number of activities at PCHS. He is the treasurer for a service club, Latin Quarters. He also is taking an accounting class and hopes to become an accountant upon graduation from college.
Currently, Garcia has a 4.3 GPA. He hopes to raise it to a 5.0 by the time he graduates from high school. This year, he became dual-enrolled at Hillsborough Community College. He plans to apply to be part of the National Honor Society at PCHS this spring.
“I already have a 4.0, so I just want to go higher, do my best,” Garcia said.
While Garcia is able to catch up on his coursework relatively easily, he’s more perturbed by the mindset he feels that people have about migrant workers.
“They say migrant workers take jobs from people,” Garcia said. “There’s not a single non-migrant person in the fields. It’s not like any other class of people. They work really hard for minimum wage.”
Garcia’s migrant advocate at PCHS, Veronica Gutierrez, is impressed by Garcia’s attitude and desire to succeed.
“I know it’s not easy,” Gutierrez said. “I think it takes a lot of discipline and a certain level of maturity. He’s always been very responsible.”
Though he doesn’t work in the fields, both of Luis Gallegos’ parents are migrant workers. When they travel from state to state, he goes with them.
Gallegos’ family usually moves from Plant City in early April, when they head to Michigan to pick blueberries. Gallegos continues school in Michigan, but transferring credits can be a challenge. And, often, Florida curriculum and Michigan curriculum are at different places in the school year — or differ entirely.
Gallegos usually returns to Plant City around October or November. Traveling has prevented Gallegos from being able to participate in extracurriculars, such as sports. He frequently doesn’t know when or where he’ll move. In Michigan, he took online classes to make up some of the credits he was missing last year. He hopes that, at some point, he’ll be able to stay in one state and has talked to his parents about staying in one state year-round for his senior year.
“It’s a hard thing to do,” Gallegos said. “Maybe there should be more help on helping migrant workers get a better job. And students, so they’ll get a better job and be able to graduate.”
Gallegos has high hopes for when he graduates next year. He wants to go to college and study something in the entertainment or arts field.
“I’ve been painting and drawing since I could remember,” Gallegos said.
Gallegos has received encouragement from guidance counselor Jorge Salmeron and has considered becoming a migrant advocate or some type of instructor to help others in similar situations.
“I like to motivate people,” he said. “I kind of want to do something like Mr. Salmeron, just show them how to do things. If I have a better education, I can have a better job. I want to give my family more than I have now.”
Strawberry Crest has the second-highest population of migrant students in Hillsborough County.
Many of the students are like 17-year-old Alicia Sanchez, who helps in the fields with her family on weekends
and breaks from school. Once the school year ends, Sanchez and her siblings travel with their parents to Michigan at the end of June, where they pick blueberries until the beginning of September.
Sanchez, who has five siblings, usually misses the first two weeks of school. The migrant program at SCHS helps her stay on track with her education.
“It’s a struggle to catch up to what they’ve already learned and try to get everything in,” Sanchez said.
It takes her two to three weeks to catch up on school work.
“I try to catch up fast,” she said. “I wish my family could just stay in one place. It’s really stressful.”
Sanchez has some stability when she travels. Her family always goes to the same farmer to pick blueberries in Michigan, but they change farms in Plant City.
Her parents weren’t able to get the education that Sanchez has had so far. Her mom finished second grade, and her dad finished first grade. They came to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico.
“They came for better living conditions and wages,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez, who was born in Tampa, hopes to pursue higher education when she graduates. She’s involved with Strawberry Crest’s vet assistance program, which she joined as a freshman.
“There’s just a lot of gaps,” Yulliana Novoa, one of Strawberry Crest’s migrant advocates, said.
Educational gaps that form in elementary school later cause students who miss school to have trouble earning the necessary scores on the FCAT and other exams needed to graduate. Having parents who don’t speak the language the student is learning can also create gaps.
Last year, 77% of Strawberry Crest’s migrant seniors graduated. Thirty-one out of the school’s 38 seniors walked, while seven did not because they did not pass some of the necessary tests.
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