That’s what happened to Rosalva Salazar.
Salazar lives in family housing at a work camp in Bladen County with her parents, sister, husband, and two children—ages 5 and 3. The family migrates from Florida to North Carolina and then to Michigan, before repeating the trip all over again each year.
Salazar’s parents made the same trip when she was a child. Salazar said she used to like Florida, because that’s where she started the school year. By the time she got to North Carolina, though, she would often find that she was being taught what she had already learned in Florida. That seemed like a waste of time to her.
“What’s the point of school?” she remembers thinking.
She dropped out in 9th grade and started doing migrant farmwork full time. In retrospect, she said the decision wasn’t well thought out.
“I just didn’t want to go to school anymore. I already knew how to work. … I didn’t mind working,” Salazar said.
She regrets it now. At 24, she is too old to qualify for North Carolina’s migrant education program, but she is still trying to get her GED.
A Tough Job
Like Salazar, migrant students are in North Carolina for a short portion of the school year. Rachel Wright Junio, the point person for the state’s migrant education program, said North Carolina’s migrant-student population—4,722 students were eligible for services last year—is medium-sized compared with the big migrant-worker strongholds of California, Florida, and Texas.
Every day, some of those students are boarding buses or other modes of transportation and traveling to their local schools, trying to learn alongside their peers. But the challenges they face are different from those of their classmates.
The migratory pattern—from Florida to North Carolina in the spring—presents problems, especially in high school. Junio explained that some Florida high schools operate differently from those in North Carolina. In the Tarheel State, many high school students have four classes a semester and end it with one credit in each class. But in Florida, students can have one semester with eight classes. At the end of the semester, they have a half credit in each of those eight classes.
That means when some migrant students arrive in North Carolina in the spring, they have eight half credits, no full credits, they haven’t taken their final exams in Florida, and they arrive just in time to take a high-stakes state exam they aren’t prepared for.
North Carolina tries to address that in a few ways. One is an online credit-recovery system, so that students can complete some of the classes for which they’ve received half-credits. While almost all districts in North Carolina offer these online credit-recovery programs, Junio said, many migrant students don’t have access to Internet from their homes.
The migrant education programs will find a way for those students to get online—by providing access after school to a location with Internet access, hot spots, or iPads with built-in Internet.
“What we also try to do is … enroll the child in whatever four of those eight credits are necessary for graduation,” Junio said. Migrant education programs also work to get students the English, math, science, and social studies credits they need so they can end the year with at least four full credits.
Florida’s Portable Assisted Study Sequence, or PASS, allows migrant students to work semi-independently to recover lost credits, and Junio said several migrant students coming from that state use PASS when they get to North Carolina.
But these challenges can be too much for migrant students, who see working alongside their parents on the farm as a reasonable option. All students in North Carolina are required to be in school until age 16, except in a few districts that are experimenting with a pilot program to raise the dropout age to 18.
“That’s why we see migrant students who are dropping out in the 9th grade,” Junio said. “They make money and they can support themselves and they’re not doing so great in school.”
Nunez Meza, one of the education workers who encountered the young man who fled out the window, understands well the plight of migrant farmworkers.
She moved to North Carolina about 12 years ago from Nicaragua and has been working with Bladen County’s migrant education department for a little more than two years. Her husband was hired by Smithfield Foods and the company brought him and other workers over from her home country along with their families. As a spouse, she was legally allowed to work for one year, so she spent it working in a McDonald’s. After that, she worked in the blueberry fields for five years.
Nunez Meza transitioned to working from home, taking care of her house and children and babysitting. She knew about the county’s migrant education department because her family took part and she visited the department a few years ago to talk about volunteering. The department eventually hired her as a recruiter.
“I really like my job now because … I know how these people feel,” she said. “They say this is a really hard job, and I know it’s really hard,” she said of farmwork.
Bladen County, located in southeast North Carolina, has the biggest migrant education program in the state. It’s also the fourth largest county by land area. With a little more than 33,000 people, according to the U.S. Census, the county has plenty of space for farmland. In 2017-18, Bladen County had 196 documented out-of-school youths and 365 migrant children.
The process Nunez Meza and Derry go through each year begins with the schools. They’re notified when families arrive, then they visit the families to see if they’re qualified for the migrant education program.
“We knock on every door,” Nunez Meza said. “And we explain how we can help.”
But that doesn’t cover out-of-school youths who may not even know they’re eligible for services. It’s up to Nunez Meza and Derry to get families signed up for school and out-of-school youths enrolled in the program.
To find potential students, the pair need to go where migrants work.
“We kind of know which farms have who and when they come,” Derry said.