Advocates urge lawmakers to pass bill to support migrant and refugee students

Language Institute teacher Amelia Herrera-Evans works with students Karen Rios, left, and Jaqueline Flores at Davis High School in Modesto, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 27.
NAN AUSTIN/ Language Institute teacher Amelia Herrera-Evans works with students Karen Rios, left, and Jaqueline Flores at Davis High School in Modesto, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 27. Modesto Bee

Students in the state’s migrant education program face some of the toughest challenges in trying to finish high school.

Raul Diaz, migrant education director for Stanislaus and Merced counties, told of a student who was diligent in her classroom studies while her family worked in the Central Valley in spring and summer. Unfortunately, her family would leave town in the fall right before final exams.

“They came back the next year and it was like being in the hamster cage again,” Diaz said. “She was going in circles.”

A proposed bill would assist high schoolers in migrant education with earning credits for a diploma or making preparations for college. Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, wants to include migrant students in the same state laws that remove barriers for foster kids and children of military families who often relocate.

Assembly Bill 2121 would provide those students with full or partial credit for classroom work completed in other schools and make them exempt from local graduation requirements that are beyond what the state requires. The bill would also guarantee an extra year in high school for students who need to complete graduation requirements or take classes to make them eligible for college.

After new immigrant and refugee students were wrapped into Caballero’s bill, a group of international students from Modesto traveled to Sacramento in June to attend a Senate Education Committee hearing in support.

“If it passes, it will help a lot of people to get the education they need,” said Daniel Perez, who attended the hearing and begins his senior year at Davis High School next week. He said migrant children who complete their education are able to find higher-paying jobs and will pay more taxes that support public services.

Perez and his siblings were in migrant education for a time until their father landed a permanent job with a dairy.

He said an older brother was able to improve his English language skills when Modesto City Schools granted him an extra year in high school, which is one of the provisions for migrant and immigrant students in AB 2121. Daniel plans to attend college with a goal of becoming an aerospace engineer.

Under the bill, school districts would issue full or partial credit for coursework completed by immigrant or refugee students in their home countries before they were resettled in Stanislaus County.

Lindsey Bird, who directs a language program for international students at Davis High, said English learners in some other areas of the state are not allowed extra time in high school.

While larger metropolitan areas have robust adult education programs for immigrants needing to learn English, Bird said, there’s a lack of programs in more rural areas. As an example, she expected the bill would assist Central American immigrants recently resettled in Mendota in western Fresno County, where schools are gearing up with language instruction, she said.

“A lot of statistics have proven that high school education and higher education has a direct impact on quality of life,” Bird said.

AB 2121 was passed out of the Education Committee but has been placed on the “suspense file” of the Appropriations Committee due to potential costs for the state and school districts. Advocates for migrant and newcomer students have gone on social media to urge committee members to advance the bill.

Caballero’s bill has support from 15 different groups, including the California Association for Bilingual Education and the Association of California School Administrators. No one has opposed it.

According to a state report, school districts will incur costs in changing procedures, providing guidance for students and parents, and investigating appeals if students are not accommodated. The costs for investigating 20 complaints statewide in a year could range from $10,000 to $400,000, depending on pay rates for staff, and the state would be on the hook for reimbursing the school districts, the report said.

School districts receive average daily attendance funding for students granted an extra year in high school.

Diaz said costs for migrant students should be minimal. He expected that a few students in Stanislaus and Merced counties would opt for the “fifth year” high school option to finish one or two required classes and local schools would be supportive.

Migrant education seems to get less attention today. About 90,000 migrant students attended schools in California in the 2016-17 school year, down from 102,000 in 2014-15, with almost 30 percent changing schools during the year. Statistics showed that 74 percent were not meeting English language standards and 80 percent were not up to par in math.

It’s common for migrant families from Texas or Mexico to arrive in the Northern San Joaquin Valley in June or July to work in agriculture and then return home in November, Diaz said. Some migrant children attend local schools during the traditional school calendar before the families move to Oregon or Washington for jobs.

The state’s migrant education program puts Stanislaus, Merced and Madera counties in the same region overseen by the Merced County Office of Education. Services are provided to 7,000 students in the region, including about 1,500 high school-age students.

According to the latest figures, 141 migrant students and 233 immigrants attend high schools in Modesto City Schools.

Caballero has worked on housing and protections for farmworkers in her district and thought migrant students were included in laws for children whose education is fragmented by relocation. Her staff said she wrote the bill after finding they were not.

The state’s minimum graduation requirements include courses in English, math, science, social studies, history, performing arts or technical education, and physical education. Because of the mobile lifestyle of these families, migrant students often have trouble with the additional requirements imposed by local school districts.

Diaz said an entire program this summer in Merced was dedicated to students earning local credits.

Becky Fortuna, a spokeswoman for Modesto City Schools, said the district is in support of the additional services for migrant and newcomer students in AB 2121. In July, the school board updated a fifth year policy that’s available to all students who meet the criteria, she said.

Thanks for your strong interest in local journalism. We rely on readers like you more than ever before, and we currently offer free access to five stories a month. We hope you see value in supporting us further with a digital subscription to help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come.