For children in migrant families, school is more like a way station than a final destination, which poses significant challenges for the teachers who are charged with their education. Now, a proposal from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) would track those students as they travel along traditional migrant routes, ensuring that school records follow them wherever they might go.

“The challenge with migrant children, because they are so mobile, there is no consistency in terms of their education,” said Albert Pacheco, executive director of the Idaho Migrant Council.

Jesus de Leon, a federal programs administrator for the Caldwell, Idaho, schools and a child of migrant workers, knows firsthand how difficult it is for migrant children to accrue the credits needed to graduate.

“We went to school from November to March,” said de Leon, who credits his education for helping him escape a life in the fields. “We left from south Texas in March and followed a big loop. In Idaho, we’d do hops, beets, corn, then to Utah and Colorado for tomatoes. In west Texas, we’d pick cotton and be back home by November.”

The federal government’s last attempt at such a program grew so unwieldy over time that it was ultimately dropped in 1995, and most states now have their own such tracking programs–which might or might not be compatible with a federal system.

“With the passage of No Child Left Behind, Congress required that the department–for the purpose of electronically exchanging health and education information–link the existing state migrant student information systems,” said Alex Goniprow with the federal Office of Migrant Education.

“The department wants the program to be a web-based information exchange,” said Gregg Wiggins, a public affairs specialist with ED’s Office of Public Affairs. “States will be able to talk to each other and help children switch schools while continuing their education as seamlessly as possible.”

The program won’t override any existing state method of tracking migrant students, but will aim to minimize the frustration that accompanies changing schools. “It will be easier for a teacher in Arizona to find out what a student did in Idaho,” Wiggins said.

The effort, officials say, will allow schools to access students’ test scores, class credits, and even immunization records immediately.

“There was a tendency for schools to say, ‘Well, I don’t know if we’re going to test them because they’re going to leave in three weeks,'” said Irene Chavolla, Idaho’s migrant education coordinator. “But right now, with all the testing under the No Child Left Behind Act, it’s really important for the schools to know where those students were getting help.”

Roughly 11,300 of Idaho’s nearly 250,000 students are migrants, their families moving at least once in three years across district lines to find agricultural or other seasonal work.

Many move every season, and some move every two or three weeks.

Idaho attempts to track those children from school district to school district through a password-protected web site. Schools are prohibited from sharing the information with other agencies, including the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Chavolla said. She added that many parents have embraced the program.

“There are concerns that students are over-immunized and over-tested, because these families may lose their immunization cards when they move around so much. This allows them another way of proving that students have been immunized,” she said.

State officials soon will travel to Washington, D.C., to explain Idaho’s system to federal officials, Chavolla said.

The California Department of Education also has close ties to federal officials and is communicating with ED about the proposed national tracking system, in part because California schools have more than one third of the country’s migrant students, said Ernesto Ruiz, the administrator in charge of the Migrant, Indian, and International Education Office.

California uses a locator system that contains migrant students’ vital records in a password-protected database that teachers, principals, and students can access. The database contains identification information but doesn’t list the courses or tests a student has passed. Instead, the database provides contact information for every school a student attended, so users can locate class or test records through phone or eMail contact.

“We don’t want to have to repeat or re-enter data that already exist in another database somewhere,” Ruiz said. “We want to keep it simple.”

ED hopes to award a contract to develop the national system by the end of this summer, Goniprow said. For now, he said, it is tough to estimate how much a system might cost or how it would be paid for.

Links:

Office of Migrant Education, U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oese/ome/index.html

Idaho Migrant Council
http://www.idahomigrantcouncil.org

California Department of Education
http://www.cde.ca.gov