Listen: Students on the Move

An MPR News Presents broadcast of the APM Reports education documentary “Students on the Move - Keeping uprooted kids in school.” A frank portrayal of the educational challenges facing kids whose housing is unstable by introducing listeners to kids experiencing homelessness, kids in migrant farmworker families, and some of the people trying to help them stay in school.


2019 EWA National Award for Education Reporting, finalist in Best Audio Storytelling (Smaller Newsroom) category


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[MUSIC PLAYING] STEVEN JOHN: Welcome to "MPR News Presents." I'm Steven John. It's back to school season. And this week, you can hear three new education documentaries from APM Reports. Today, "Students on the Move-- Keeping Uprooted Kids In School."

STEPHEN SMITH: From American Public Media, this is an APM Reports documentary.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: You can have a seat if you want.

SPEAKER 1: Thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is University High School in Spokane Valley, Washington. A student named [? Michaela ?] has stopped in to talk with a school social worker. [? Michaela ?] was just in court. She's asking a judge to emancipate her. She wants to be declared independent so she can live on her own, even though she's 16.

SPEAKER 1: And the judge said that my maturity level is definitely that of an older adult. And he said that he can't grant the emancipation that day, only because I wasn't currently working.

STEPHEN SMITH: [? Michaela ?] wants to live on her own because she's having a lot of trouble at home with her stepmom. She's fallen behind in school, and she wants to get back on track because she's hoping to go to college.

SPEAKER 1: I want to go to a two-year. And then I want to switch to a four-year. And then after that, I want to go to med school and become an anesthesiologist.

STEPHEN SMITH: But before she goes to college, she needs to finish high school. And if she moves out on her own, she'll need a place to live and a way to pay for it. That's why she's talking with a school social worker.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: How many hours are you going to have to work?

STEPHEN SMITH: The social worker is Leslie Camden Goold. She keeps tabs on about 400 kids here in the Central Valley school district who've been identified as homeless. When [? Michaela ?] moves out, she'll be an unaccompanied minor, and she'll be officially homeless. Most homeless kids are still with their families. But Leslie sees all sorts of circumstances.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: These students could be living in emergency shelters. They could be living in transitional housing programs. They could be living in hotels. They could be couch surfing. They could be living in cars all because they've lost housing and can't find affordable housing.


STEPHEN SMITH: From APM Reports, this is "Students on the Move-- Keeping Uprooted Kids in School." I'm Stephen Smith. It's hard to even know how many homeless kids there are in the United States. But the number is large.

The Department of Education's most recent count found 1.3 million public school students were homeless. That's the largest that number has ever been. And some researchers say, it might really be much larger because homeless kids and families are difficult to count.

Being homeless is hard on kids. They're less likely to graduate from high school, and they're more likely to be homeless as adults. When kids are uprooted, it's schools that end up on the front lines trying to help them for an obvious reason-- schools are where the kids are.

For kids with tumultuous lives, school can be something they can count on, something that's consistent. And school is the best way out of generational poverty. A high school diploma and a college degree start with staying in school.

Over the next hour, we'll hear about efforts to help homeless kids do better in school and get to graduation. And we'll also hear about another group of kids who struggle to stay in school and make it to college because their families are on the move-- the children of migrant farm workers. APM reports producer, Chris Julin tells the first part of our story.

SPEAKER 2: It's a weekday morning at the Open Doors family shelter in Spokane, Washington. About 65 people slept here last night. They slept on the floor on pads a few feet apart. Half the people here in the shelter are kids under the age of 12.

Open Doors is in the basement of a church. A couple of walls are lined with couches and stuffed chairs. In one corner, there are piles of kids' games and books. Through the big windows, you can see a fenced-off kennel where families can keep their pets.

Parents crowd into the kitchen to fix breakfast. Then it's time to get the kids off to school. Many of the families are trying to keep their kids in the same school they were in before they got to the shelter. So the kids are headed all over town.

One took a taxi before the sun was up. A couple of others will get rides from their parents. A group of kids is about to head outside to catch buses to other parts of town. Another group will walk a few blocks to the neighborhood elementary.

SPEAKER 3: I'm going to school.

JOE ADER: Those boots are awesome.

SPEAKER 2: A little girl in shiny red rain boots is talking with Joe Ader. He's the director of the organization that runs the shelter.

JOE ADER: You get to go to school today?

SPEAKER 4: Stevens.

SPEAKER 3: Yeah. Stevens Elementary.

JOE ADER: That is awesome. I like Stevens Elementary.

SPEAKER 3: Have you been Stevens Elementary?

JOE ADER: I have been at Stevens Elementary. It's a great school. They have a neat playground too.

SPEAKER 3: Oh, it's probably big.

JOE ADER: Our kids like school. They like that consistency. They like that safe place to be. For our kids, summer breaks are not their favorite.

Last summer, we had a volunteer the night that school let out. And she came in and was like, kids, who's excited about summer? And it was dead silence.

STEPHEN SMITH: It's not just the kids at the shelter who like the consistency of school. So do the parents.

SPEAKER 4: You guys can play for a little bit, OK?

STEPHEN SMITH: Tricia's here at the shelter with her two sons. One's in kindergarten. The other's in second grade. The boys are messing around with a dozen other kids who are about to leave for school.

SPEAKER 4: I want you to zip up your coat.

STEPHEN SMITH: Tricia and the boys had to leave behind what she calls an environment that wasn't good. For five months, they bounced around, mostly living with other families. Then Tricia found the shelter.

Today, she's going to meet with Catholic charities. She's looking at a place that she and the boys might be able to move into. But first, she's going to see them off to school.

SPEAKER 4: School is number one when it comes to my family because the schools have a really good support system so that they can have that sense of normality given the situation with all the different families that they are being exposed to.

STEPHEN SMITH: Spokane has the same problem as a lot of cities around the country. There's not enough housing that families in the lower half of the income bracket can afford. So Tricia's story before she got to the shelter is pretty common-- doubling up with somebody else. There aren't many family-oriented shelters like this one, so most shelters aren't an option for parents and kids. Besides that, parents are often leery about asking for help if they lose their housing.

BARBARA DUFFIELD: They don't know what's going to happen to them if they actually identify themselves. They're afraid their kids are going to be taken away from them.

STEPHEN SMITH: Barbara Duffield is the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection. That's a national policy and research nonprofit that focuses on childhood homelessness. She says, at least 3/4 of kids who've lost their housing are doubled up, the way Tricia and her sons were for several months.

BARBARA DUFFIELD: Most often, it looks like staying with somebody temporarily, maybe even somebody you don't know because there's nowhere else to go. Staying with other people is the biggest category of children and youth who are homeless and enrolled in public school.

STEPHEN SMITH: Some recent research shows that kids who are doubled up are as likely to struggle in school as kids who are in shelters or living in cars.


STEPHEN SMITH: Liza Burrell is the program director at Building Changes. That's a nonprofit in Seattle that develops programs focused on families and kids who are homeless.

LIZA BURRELL: It's mind boggling that we think that a kid is going to be, like, I slept in a sleeping bag at my friend's house last night. And my mom's at her friend's house. But that's OK. I'm here to learn math.

STEPHEN SMITH: In 2018, Burrell's organization analyzed data from the state of Washington. They compared kids who were doubled up with kids who are living in shelters or in cars or in hotels. The analysis found that the two groups of kids faced the same academic challenges.

They missed about the same amount of school. They both had an increased chance of being suspended. Both groups lagged behind their peers in reading and writing and math.

BARBARA DUFFIELD: Homelessness is devastating to all aspects of child development.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is Barbara Duffield again from SchoolHouse Connection.

BARBARA DUFFIELD: So if we look at our littlest ones, even infants, there is a lot of research done this past year on infants who experience homelessness-- low birth weight, more likely to be hospitalized. So they're starting out life in a compromised position.

STEPHEN SMITH: When homeless kids reach school age, they're already behind their peers academically. And Barbara Duffield says, they tend to stay there.

BARBARA DUFFIELD: As we get into high school then, we also see impacts on graduation rates, and we see health impacts-- more bullying, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders that are over and above children who are poor but have stable housing. Homelessness itself has an impact above and beyond the poverty. Everything from absenteeism to graduation, we see quite a disproportionate impact.

STEPHEN SMITH: And research says, those effects can carry through to adulthood, especially if a student doesn't finish high school.

BARBARA DUFFIELD: Lack of a high school degree or a GED is actually the top risk factor for experiencing homelessness as a young adult. And then for young adults, that then puts them at risk of experiencing homelessness as they become older. So there's-- we see a very compelling reason to intervene as early as possible.


STEPHEN SMITH: Homeless kids tend to do better if they keep attending school. But if your family's been evicted and you're sleeping on someone's floor, getting to school on Thursday morning might not be at the top of the priority list. So for Leslie Camden Goold the social worker, a big part of her job is to find ways to help homeless kids show up for school.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: All right, girls.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is an alternative high school in Spokane Valley. Leslie Camden Goold is stopping by to talk with a couple of sisters she works with.


SPEAKER 5: I'm tired.

STEPHEN SMITH: Their names are Jordan and Savannah. About six years ago, their parents split up. Their mom fell behind on the bills, and they lost their place. For several years, they were constantly on the move.

SPEAKER 5: I was kind of everywhere-- sleeping in cars, sleeping kind of wherever I could-- hotel rooms.

STEPHEN SMITH: That's Savannah, the ninth grader. She was usually with her mom. But sometimes, she was with relatives or friends. For a while, she stayed with her older sisters. The oldest was 19 at the time. Savannah even moved to another state for a while.

SPEAKER 5: Oh my God. I've been to so many schools, I'm just so used to being the new kid and not really getting used to the school.

STEPHEN SMITH: She says, she went to about 14 different schools in six years. That's more than two schools each year. And after a while, she just stopped going.

SPEAKER 5: Like, when I was in middle school, I would just never actually show up.

STEPHEN SMITH: That got Savannah into trouble. States require children to be educated. The age varies from state to state, but at least until 16. Kids who skip school can end up in the juvenile justice system. That almost happened to Savannah. But now, she's going to school.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: Let me know how today goes.

STEPHEN SMITH: Leslie helped Savannah and her sister get into an alternative school that has a flexible schedule. Leslie got them passes for city buses so they could get to and from school. She connected them with a program that sends kids home with a sack of food every Friday to help their families get through the weekend.

She set them up with doctors and counselors. And she helped them get legal advice about moving in with their aunt. Now, they're living with their aunt. And day to day life is more stable. Both girls are showing up at school and passing their classes.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: All right. Thanks, darlings.

SPEAKER 5: OK, I'm going to [INAUDIBLE].



STEPHEN SMITH: The data shows that going to a lot of different schools like Savannah and Jordan did, that's pretty common with kids who are homeless. And that's a problem because students do best if they not only stay in school but stay in the same school.

LIZA BURRELL: Every time a student moves schools, they lose four to six months of content, of academic learning.

STEPHEN SMITH: This is Liza Burrell, the program director at Building Changes.

LIZA BURRELL: It's very hard to recoup that learning being in a new environment. And catching up is really, really hard. And we're finding that more and more research is being done with students who had experienced homelessness earlier in their student career, and they're still sort of behind their peers that have been housed that whole time.

STEPHEN SMITH: So people like Leslie Camden Goold try to keep homeless kids in the same school. But that's challenging.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: Hi. How are you? Well, I'm trying to figure out what is going on with Jeremy--

STEPHEN SMITH: Leslie Camden Goold's back in her office.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: Is he at school?

STEPHEN SMITH: She's talking on the phone with a school secretary about a kindergartner she works with. Leslie heard from the school transportation department that the boy hasn't been at his bus stop this week. The front office at his school says, he's missed a couple of days of class. So Leslie dials a number for the boy's mom.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: Figure out what is going on.

STEPHEN SMITH: She gets a message that the number can't be reached right now, probably the phone bill didn't get paid.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: So I couldn't get a hold of mom. This happens a lot.

STEPHEN SMITH: Leslie's been working with this family for a while-- a mom, the boy in kindergarten, and his brother in sixth grade.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: They, for a time, were living in their car, doubled up at a relative's house. The last we knew of them, they were doubled up with a friend.

STEPHEN SMITH: The boys started the school year here in Spokane Valley. But now, they're living in a neighboring school district. Leslie's arranged for the boys to get school bus rides back here to her district so they can finish the school year where they started. But the family's been moving around. And sometimes, wires get crossed about where the kids will catch the bus.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: Did he come late today? OK.

STEPHEN SMITH: It's Leslie's job to uncross the wires and keep the boys in school. So she's back on the phone with the school secretary.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: OK, and you guys are going to excuse it or? OK.

STEPHEN SMITH: There's no word from the boys mom yet. But Leslie has left messages for her everywhere she can.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: Well, we'll figure it out. Well, thank you. Have a great day. Bye.

STEPHEN SMITH: With 400 homeless kids in this district, Leslie spends a lot of time arranging transportation. The district has to arrange transportation for homeless kids. It's federal law.


That law is called the McKinney-Vento Act, and it went into effect back in 1987. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration cut way back on building low-income housing. At the same time, the number of homeless people was increasing. Throughout the '80s, the homelessness crisis was all over the newspaper headlines and the TV news.

SPEAKER 6: Homelessness is one of the pressing problems in American culture today.

SPEAKER 7: Officials say, there are some 5,000 homeless people in San Jose.

SPEAKER 8: Today's rally at the nation's Capitol, united the homeless and wage earners struggling to afford a home.

SPEAKER 9: We, the homeless of New York, will not accept [INAUDIBLE] of affordable housing anymore.

SPEAKER 10: We need housing, and we need it now.


DAVID BLY: It was really the first contemporary wave of homelessness since the Great Depression.

STEPHEN SMITH: David Bly was a congressional staffer at the time.

DAVID BLY: You would be hard pressed to walk through a city of any size and not notice homelessness-- people lying on the streets, in doorways, or shelters getting filled.

STEPHEN SMITH: David Bly says, there was no federal law aimed specifically at helping people who are homeless. But by the mid 1980s, the pressure to do something was immense. He was instrumental in getting the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act passed. And one section of the law dealt specifically with schools.

DAVID BLY: Local schools were required to identify and count homeless students. And they were required to transport them from their temporary or shelter housing to the school of origin, the school that they normally attended.


STEPHEN SMITH: That law is still in effect. Kids who are homeless have a legal right to stay in the same school. And they have a legal right to transportation. If a homeless child must change schools, they have a legal right to be enrolled in the new school immediately, without having to wait for paperwork or for meetings.

The law provides some money to schools for programs to help homeless kids, but not much. In 2019, that McKinney-Vento money averaged out to about $70 a year for each homeless child in the country. That's a fraction of what schools spend just transporting kids who are homeless.

Case in point, the state of Washington got a bit more than $1 million in McKinney-Vento money in the 2018 school year. That year, schools in the state spent about $32 million just transporting students who are homeless. David Bly says, instead of bussing homeless kids, it would be cheaper and more humane to keep their families housed.

These days, he's with the Gates Foundation. He oversees grants aimed at homelessness and education in the Pacific Northwest. He says, schools can't solve the problem of homelessness. But they can make a dent. Some districts are teaming up with nonprofits to experiment with ways to help families hang on to their housing. That's what a group called Priority Spokane did. They picked three elementary schools to see if they could actually reduce the number of homeless students at those schools.

RYAN OELRICH: We gave ourselves three years to carry out a pilot.

STEPHEN SMITH: Ryan Oelrich is the executive director of Priority Spokane. His group's strategy was to work through the schools to find families on the brink of becoming homeless and keep those families in their homes. Priority Spokane put a community health worker in each of the three schools, and it was that person's job to identify kids whose families were in danger of losing their housing.

RYAN OELRICH: So often, it's lunch ladies and school secretaries and teachers that are really seeing, these are children who need help. This is a child who's worn the same clothes for three days. This is a child who is repeatedly forgetting their lunch. These are all indicators to us that maybe there are some problems at home that our community health workers could help with.

STEPHEN SMITH: The workers plugged families into existing services. But they also had a fund so they could help families out of tight spots. In one case, a $72 car repair meant a parent could keep commuting to work and keep paying the rent.

RYAN OELRICH: In that first year, I think we would have been very happy with just housing and stabilizing 50% of the students and families that we were working with. But in that first year, we were just absolutely blown away when we hit 78% of the families that we engaged with, we were able to stabilize and house.

STEPHEN SMITH: Ryan Oelrich says, on average, it costs less than $1,000 per family to keep them in their homes for a couple of years.

RYAN OELRICH: And that's versus if a family becomes homeless, the thousands of dollars that we're paying to rehouse them, the trauma that's being inflicted on the family and especially on the kids. So we absolutely know that we save money housing folks. There's no doubt.

STEPHEN SMITH: At the Gates Foundation, David Bly says he's seen a number of success stories like this-- schools that have actually decreased the number of families who fall into homelessness, like they did in Spokane, and schools that have boosted the graduation rates for homeless kids.

RYAN OELRICH: But it had a very difficult time systematically spreading those kinds of practices and models across all public schools. It's very easy in public education to see a school that just looks like a shining example on a hill because they're doing the right thing. But it has proven to be very difficult to spread and replicate whatever that secret sauce is across all schools.

ALEXANDRA PAVLAKIS: There's districts doing really great things. There's individual schools doing really great things.

STEPHEN SMITH: Alexandra Pavlakis has seen the same thing. She's a professor at Southern Methodist University, and she studies homeless families and education.

ALEXANDRA PAVLAKIS: What I've seen in my research is, it really depends not only what district you're in and what school your student may be attending, but even who the individual social worker is.

SPEAKER 11: I'm pretty sure. [INAUDIBLE], I'm in this tab class, right? OK, yeah.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: Brandon. Hi, dude.

STEPHEN SMITH: That's Leslie Camden Goold, the school social worker from Spokane Valley. It's graduation day for University High, so she's at a sports arena in Spokane. The students are decked out in their black caps and gowns, and they're lining up for their big entrance. Leslie's walking through the crowd, and she sees some familiar faces.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: Oh, there's [INAUDIBLE]. And then there's Shelby. I forgot my Kleenex. Dang it.

STEPHEN SMITH: Leslie's been a social worker in the Central Valley school district for 18 years, and she's seen a lot of graduation ceremonies. She goes to all of them because she works with homeless kids in every school.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: In our three high schools, we ended up with having 40 seniors who stuck with us throughout the year.

STEPHEN SMITH: Of those 40, 31 are graduating and six more made plans to finish it up in a few months.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: So they're close.

STEPHEN SMITH: The kids identified as homeless are lagging a bit behind the district average for graduating.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: But every single one of them, if they're walking across the stage, it's a victory.

STEPHEN SMITH: Seeing them here today brings back memories.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: Yeah, yeah, helping them get to school, helping them get homework assignments done, helping them talking to teachers about their situation and kind of having the staff give them some grace for what they're going through, it's all about that. It's all about lifting these kids up and putting a safety net underneath them and helping them graduate.

STEPHEN SMITH: So today, she's happy. But she's tired.

LESLIE CAMDEN GOOLD: My mind's kind of mush right now. It's emotionally draining. And I mean, I'm so excited to see these students graduate. But I got a whole group of new students coming up, I know.


STEPHEN SMITH: You're listening to "Students on the Move--" Keeping Uprooted Kids In School," a documentary from APM Reports. That was producer Chris Julin. I'm Stephen Smith.

We'll take a short break, and then we'll hear about another group of students who struggle to stay in school and get to college because their families keep moving-- the children of migrant farm workers.

SPEAKER 12: We work really hard to get what we get-- to get our money. But I know how I have smart kids, and I know they can do a lot better.

STEPHEN SMITH: We have more about this story on our website-- You can also explore our archive of education documentaries and subscribe to our podcast about K-12 and higher education. It's called "Educate."

Support for APM reports comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. More in a moment. This is APM-- American Public Media.

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STEPHEN SMITH: You're listening to "Students on the Move-- Keeping Uprooted Kids In School" from APM Reports. I'm Stephen Smith. This hour, the stories of kids who are frequently uprooted from school. Research shows that education is critical to getting ahead. A high school diploma and a college education can be a ticket out of generational poverty.

But what happens when consistently getting to school is a challenge due to forces beyond your control, like when you're homeless and sleeping at a relative's house one night and a shelter the next, or, as we're about to see, when your family has to move again and again to find work? That's the case for kids whose parents are migrant farm workers.

A lot of American agriculture has been mechanized. But many farmers still rely on seasonal workers to plant and harvest crops. When that work is done, the workers move on, as do their kids, which can mean a change in schools.

Changing schools can leave kids with gaps in their education that make it tough to get to graduation. It's a struggle that Edward R. Murrow brought into the public spotlight back in 1960 with his documentary "Harvest of Shame."

EDWARD MURROW: Approximately one out of every 500 children whose parents are still migrant laborers finishes grade school. Approximately one out of every 5,000 ever finishes high school. And there is no case upon the record of the child of a migrant laborer ever receiving a college diploma.

STEPHEN SMITH: Murrow documented the low wages, long hours, and substandard housing faced by migrant workers. And he pointed to a possible solution.

EDWARD MURROW: Everyone who knows anything about this situation agrees that the best hope for the future of the migrants lies in the education of their children. But for the children of migrants, education is not easy to come by.

STEPHEN SMITH: The film beamed into living rooms across the United States as the farm worker movement was gaining momentum. In 1962, Cesar Chavez formed the United Farm Workers in California. And across the country, from North Carolina to Maine to Texas, workers have continued to organize for better wages and improved working conditions. And the situation has improved.

In the late 1960s, the federal government implemented programs to improve housing and work conditions and to provide the kids of migrant workers some extra support to help them finish school. Reporter Tennessee Watson of Wyoming Public Radio teamed up with APM Reports to find out what's changed and what hasn't since Murrow's "Harvest of Shame." What's helping kids get through school and make it to college, and what's still standing in their way? She followed one family for a year, and brings us this story.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Araceli Benavides is giving me a tour of the farm country where she works in the Red River Valley in North Dakota. It's late June, and the green tops of sugar beets and potatoes spread across the flat fields on either side of the two-lane country road. We pull into a dusty lot with a big, windowless, beige building.

So there are just, like, a bunch of potatoes in there?

SPEAKER 16: There-- you'll see. You'll see.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Inside, thousands of potatoes roll past on a conveyor belt. Four women are picking out small potatoes, gross potatoes, and rocks. It's cold and musty, and Araceli says, it's hard being on your feet all day.

SPEAKER 16: It's a long day. They work long hours, especially during the harvest.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Araceli has been doing farm work with her family since she was a little girl. She's 47 now.

SPEAKER 16: We would do grapes in Arizona or cotton or different things. But mostly, it was either apricot, peaches.

TENNESSEE WATSON: And what was school like for you as a migrant kid?

SPEAKER 16: Not nice because I didn't have the fortune to go to school as much as I would like to. My parents decided that as soon as I finished sixth grade, that was it. That was my school.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Her parents were struggling to make ends meet, so Araceli left school to help out.

SPEAKER 16: Then I started working really young. I was probably, like, 13.

TENNESSEE WATSON: And she was doing one of the riskiest jobs in America. Farmworkers are exposed to pesticides, extreme weather, and dangerous equipment. It's more deadly than being a firefighter, a mine machinery operator, or a police officer. On top of that, it's one of the lowest paying jobs.

The latest data from the US Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey shows farmworkers average family income is around $20,000 to $25,000 a year. But without a high school diploma, Araceli didn't feel like she had many other employment options.

Eventually, she met her husband Juan. He's from a farmworker family too. And like Araceli, he never graduated. They've made a life together moving between Texas and North Dakota. They had two sons, and Araceli wanted more for them than a job sorting potatoes or driving a tractor like their dad.

SPEAKER 16: Not that what we do is bad or it's not right because we work really hard to get what we get-- to get our money. But they can do better. I know I have smart kids, and I know they can do a lot better.

TENNESSEE WATSON: But she wasn't sure how she'd get them on a different path. Then one day, a friend she worked with told her about the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program.

SPEAKER 16: And I saw the benefits that the kids could get out of it. My thoughts started to change. My mind started to change.

TENNESSEE WATSON: A bus started picking up her kids early in the morning from her house. And they'd spend the day at a free preschool for farmworker kids. Knowing they had a safe place to learn and play gave her hope that she could give her kids a different future.

SPEAKER 16: And I started educating them like that, thinking that way-- dream big. Don't settle with just whatever. No, no, dream big.


TENNESSEE WATSON: Araceli wants all farmworker youth to have a chance at their dreams, not just her kids. And that desire landed her in a new seasonal gig. Araceli is now an outreach worker for the Migrant Education Program.

The federal program was signed into law in 1966. Its mission was to provide migrant kids ages 3 to 21 with extra support as they moved from school to school. Then, in 1969, the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program started up to serve kids from birth to five years old. In tandem, the two programs work to keep kids out of the fields and in school. The programs were a part of a series of reforms passed in the wake of Edward R. Murrow's "Harvest of Shame."

Today, the migrant education program funnels federal dollars to states to provide academic support to around 300,000 migratory kids. It helps the kids of seafood workers in Alaska, blueberry harvesters in Maine, and dairy workers in New York. It provides tutoring, counseling, and summer programs, like the one run out of the school in Manville, North Dakota, where Araceli works.

Today, she's looking for a student who didn't show up at the summer program. She peers through the windows of a single wide trailer nestled among farm fields looking for him.

SPEAKER 16: Isaac.

TENNESSEE WATSON: When he doesn't come to the door, she pokes AROUND the property a little more and finds his dad working on a piece of farm equipment in a garage across the way.



TENNESSEE WATSON: Araceli has Isaac's school records. She tells his dad that Isaac is missing some credits.

SPEAKER 16: He didn't go to school today because he thought he was done with what he needed, but he still needs general science to finish.

TENNESSEE WATSON: That happens a lot to migrant kids. They end up with gaps as they move from harvest to harvest with their parents. The summer program can help those kids get caught up.

SPEAKER 16: Tell him and have him go to school so he could finish.


SPEAKER 16: Si. Give it to him, and tell him to bring it tomorrow if he comes tomorrow.

SPEAKER 17: Yeah, he'll go to school.

SPEAKER 16: Thank you.

TENNESSEE WATSON: When we get back to the migrant summer program, Araceli spots her 14-year-old son angel playing basketball in the school's gymnasium.

That was two points for Angel, huh?

SPEAKER 16: Yes. I don't know much about basketball, but--


SPEAKER 16: I know he did, but I know how many points.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Angel is a tall, lanky kid with deep brown eyes and a wide smile. He loves basketball, and he loves school. After recess, he invites me to tag along with him to class.

15 high school students are clustered around tables all working on their own thing. They've come to North Dakota from different places and at slightly different times depending on the farm work their parents do, which means their educational needs are all different.

A couple of boys are working on biology. One girl is working on a drawing project for an art credit she needs. They all get help from their teacher, Ms. Wohlgemuth.

SPEAKER 18: You did pretty good. I do want you to go back, though, and do the ones that you got wrong.


SPEAKER 18: OK? Just so you have a--

TENNESSEE WATSON: She's walking Angel through the results of an algebra quiz he took this morning.

SPEAKER 18: So you've got just those few to go through. You can try and do them today if you want. Otherwise, you can wait for tomorrow.

SPEAKER 19: No, I'll try them.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Angel is working on algebra one, not because he didn't pass it the first time, but because he wants to get ahead. Back in seventh grade, he was signed up for pre-algebra in his Texas School. And that would have put him on track to take advanced math in high school, but he wasn't back from North Dakota in time.

SPEAKER 19: And they called my name. But since I wasn't there, they took me off the roster, so I couldn't take it.

TENNESSEE WATSON: He's hoping that an algebra one credit from the migrant summer program will get him back into advanced math in Texas. This is all a part of his plan to go to college.

SPEAKER 19: So to find the perfect square, we have to divide by 2. No, we have to get the square root of this number.

TENNESSEE WATSON: But angel says it's not just academics that migrant students miss out on. He wishes he had the chance to do more extracurricular activities.

SPEAKER 19: There's a lot of activities that they make. But it's in the beginning of the year, like in September or August. And since I'm not there, I can't join late because it's already going to be way too late.

TENNESSEE WATSON: He'd like to do something called the University Interscholastic League.

SPEAKER 19: They're like competitions for mathematics, for science, history, for spelling, reading, and there's a bunch of those. Pretty much every subject, I would like to get into.

TENNESSEE WATSON: And angel really wants to play on the high school basketball team.

SPEAKER 19: I don't want to leave too early where I don't make the basketball team here or leave too late to where I don't make it over there. And I'm going to get stuck, and I'm not going to be able to play at all.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Tryouts in Texas are in early November, but angel has no idea when the harvest will wrap up. It depends on the weather, so there's no exact date. Could be late October or early November. And his dad is expected to stay till the end.

Angel knows that because his parents don't have high school diplomas, it's hard for them to find jobs that are more stable. And he knows that his mom feels bad about that.

SPEAKER 19: She would tell me before how she wishes that she had the opportunity to learn and go to college so we wouldn't have to migrate. She's like, I'm sorry that you have to do this. I know it hurts.


TENNESSEE WATSON: In late October when Araceli's job at the summer program ends and there's no more work on the farm for her husband Juan in North Dakota, Angel's family makes the 1,700 mile journey back to Rio Grande City. They're in time for him to make the team.

If it were up to Angel, he'd make the South Texas border town his home year round. He'd have more time with his extended family, and he wouldn't have to switch schools. Trouble is, it's a hard place for his family to make a living.

Rio Grande City is in Stark County-- the poorest County in Texas. The median household income is around $27,000, less than half of what it is for the nation. And the unemployment rate is high. A lot of families move around to find work, like Angel's. The Rio Grande Valley is home to over half of the migrant families in Texas, and Texas has one of the largest migrant education programs in the country with some 31,000 students.

Rio Grande City High School tries to provide a welcoming place for these kids to land as they come and go with a migrant student club. In early February, I dropped in on one of their meetings.

Hi, I'm Tennessee.

SPEAKER 20: Hi, I am MC Lopez.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Nice to meet you.

SPEAKER 20: Nice to meet you too. And these are my kids.

TENNESSEE WATSON: The students are gathered in a classroom, and Angel is in the back row. He gives me his big smile as the club's faculty sponsor, MC Lopez, dives back into her announcement about an upcoming college visit.

SPEAKER 20: You need to join in so that we can all start going out to see the different schools to see which schools that you are going to want to go to once you're a senior, OK? Any questions on that one? Anybody interested in going?

TENNESSEE WATSON: When she's done, Ms. Lopez invites me to explain why I'm here. I tell them about how Edward R. Murrow reported in 1960 that no migrant student had gone to college.

Does that surprise you to hear that? Angel, you're saying it doesn't surprise you.



SPEAKER 19: Because back then, the school system, they weren't supported for migrant students I think because nobody really knew them back then, so.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Ms. Lopez pushes her students to think about their own parents' struggle to get an education.

Do your parents have a college degree or just high school degree?

Kids list off the grades, their parents dropped out of high school. And no one raises a hand to say their parents had gone to college.

SPEAKER 21: My dad left freshman year to go work.

SPEAKER 22: Yeah, my mom didn't finish high school.

TENNESSEE WATSON: According to a 2016 survey from the US Department of Labor, the average level of formal education completed by farmworkers was eighth grade.

They are encouraging you to go to school, correct? Because they tell you what? We don't want you to fall into the same--

SPEAKER 22: Yes.

TENNESSEE WATSON: To get through high school and go on to college feels like a lot of pressure on kids who have their education interrupted by moves all over the place.

Where do you go?

SPEAKER 22: Washington, California, and Montana.

SPEAKER 23: I've traveled to Mississippi, Nebraska, Louisiana.

SPEAKER 24: Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Mississippi.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Wherever there's work, right?

SPEAKER 23: Yeah.

SPEAKER 24: Mm-hmm.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Most states have migrant education programs. But that doesn't guarantee that outreach workers will find every migrant student out in the fields or that every school will be clued into the needs of farmworker families.

SPEAKER 20: I have a student that just left yesterday. And she was telling me that where she goes, they don't help them out.


TENNESSEE WATSON: And that's one of the critiques of the program. Federal dollars are routed through states to local school districts and in some cases, nonprofits who want to run programs. But migrant education is not like special education where students are guaranteed the support they need.

Rhode Island, Connecticut, and West Virginia have opted out of the program for years. Wyoming dropped out in 2017. The Wyoming Department of Education told me it canceled the program because changes in agriculture had reduced the number of migrant kids coming to the state. But in Rio Grande City, the migrant education program has $1 million budget to support tutoring and special workshops on reading, writing, and math skills.

There's also a team of counselors that are dedicated to the needs of migrant students. Erika Pratt is one of them I found her in her office with the air conditioner blasting to hold back the Texas heat.

SPEAKER 25: Of course, we never belittle their work because it's honest living. And without our migrants, we wouldn't be eating. We have our vegetables or fruit because we have migrant workers.

But for the same token, we have those kids that we encourage that way. OK, your parents are doing this for you to get a better education, for you to become even somebody that doesn't have to work as hard. How nice would it be for you to work air conditioned, especially here in South Texas when the weather is 110 degrees? And then you can even probably break that cycle for your parents. Come back and help them. So we try.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Pratt says, that means creating specialized plans for migrant students.

SPEAKER 25: It covers anything like from needing materials, needing uniforms, going over their schedule.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Pratt's co-worker, Olga Gonzalez, says, the staff who run this program have a particular motivation to help these kids succeed.

SPEAKER 26: Most of us were migrants ourselves.


SPEAKER 26: Most of us, most of the migrant department, we were migrant ourselves. And we see the need of helping these students have some sort of an incentive to go to college.

TENNESSEE WATSON: One incentive they provide is college scholarships. This weekend, the migrant education program staff are hosting a chicken barbecue to raise money for a scholarship fund.

SPEAKER 26: Somebody for the potato?

SPEAKER 27: I'll do Bread and--

SPEAKER 26: Potato?

SPEAKER 27: I'll do--

SPEAKER 26: OK, I'll stay here at the end.

TENNESSEE WATSON: In the parking of a grocery store, they've set up big grills. And volunteers are boxing up barbecue chicken with Mexican rice, potato salad, and a pickled jalapeno. Araceli is here helping out. Her son Angel is only a freshman, but she's happy to help raise money for this year's seniors.

How are the sales going?

SPEAKER 16: Right now, they are really going to start. Yeah, so, I don't know.


TENNESSEE WATSON: In North Dakota, Araceli used mostly English. But here in the South Texas borderland, she freely flows into Spanish. She tells me she hopes they raise a lot of money because it's hard for farmworkers to afford to send their kids to college. And any little bit helps.

Gino Gonzalez is helping out too. She's director of federal programs for the Rio Grande City schools. She oversees their migrant education program. She says, she's glad to see the community pulling together to raise money for higher education, and she's glad the migrant education program exists to help kids get through school. But she says, neither one addresses the real problems that these families face.

GINO GONZALEZ: The law-- the United States child labor laws don't apply to these children. And that is a big sore on my back because I don't understand how the United States would allow a 10-year-old to work in horrible conditions in some cases. And it's OK.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Federal law allows children to start doing farm work at age 12 with parental consent. And in certain short-term harvests, they can work as young as 10.

GINO GONZALEZ: We try to talk to lobbyists to see if they can push child labor laws to protect the migrant students. And I know that the parents, they need it, but it's wrong. A 10 and 11-year-old should not be working fields, should not be doing that.


TENNESSEE WATSON: The US Department of Labor issued a report in 2014 looking at the employment characteristics of people hired to work on farms and their families. And what the report says is that 84,000 youth ages 14 to 18 do farm work. That's about 6% of all farm workers. And the majority of them were teenage boys traveling on their own.

But the report also looked at children living with their parents who reported doing farm work. And 24% of them were under the age of 14. The report indicated that most kids who work do continue to attend school. But it also found that 2% of kids ages 6 to 15 were not enrolled. And that number jumps to 4% for kids ages 16 and 17.

Every state requires kids to be in school until they're at least 16. But Norma Flores Lopez says, farmworkers' kids may be overlooked. She works for the child labor coalition-- a group working to end child labor. Lopez says, farmworkers can be invisible.

NORMA LÓPEZ: But if those children were as present as, let's say, waiting on our tables or vacuuming the floors in our offices, I feel like people would react differently if they had to confront it and face these children over and over again.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Lopez fights to keep kids off the job and in school. And she also works on Capitol Hill, lobbying to keep educational support for farmworker students in place. But she says, it's not enough just to help the students.

NORMA LÓPEZ: Folks are OK with investing in children and protecting them and providing them with educational opportunities and giving them these opportunities to pull themselves up from their bootstraps but turn the other way, turn a blind eye when it comes to really doing something for the parents, for the farm workers.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Lopez grew up in a South Texas farmworker family herself. With support from the migrant education program, she beat the odds, graduated from high school, and eventually got a master's degree. But she says, that wasn't the case for many of her farmworker peers.

The US Department of Education doesn't track graduation rates for students in the migrant education program. So we don't know how many are leaving farm work behind and moving into better-paying jobs. But what we do know is that kids in the migrant education program score below the national average on state reading and math assessments given in third through eighth grade.

Around 28% of migratory kids score proficient. That's compared to 40% of other kids from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. Lopez says, farmworkers and their children will continue to struggle as long as they work in miserable conditions and make so little money.

NORMA LÓPEZ: If those issues were addressed, then you would have families that would have access to better education and better outcomes in health, better outcomes and opportunities to be able to gain generational wealth.


TENNESSEE WATSON: Angel and his dog, Lucas, meet me at the door of his family's small home. They've invited me over for breakfast.


TENNESSEE WATSON: Araceli is making fresh tortillas. Her husband, Juan, is cooking beans and eggs. Angel shows me around.

SPEAKER 19: All right, so this is my front lawn, right? We change the oil. We need to do something. That's where we park all the cars.

I have my basketball hoop there. That's where I play basketball if I'm bored and stuff. And so this is my front door. And we have the living room and the kitchen combined, conjoined together. And this is my room. This is my humble abode.


TENNESSEE WATSON: For most of Angel's life, he shared a room with his brother.

SPEAKER 19: Even now, even though I have the whole bed to myself, I only sleep on the left side.

TENNESSEE WATSON: The right side of the bed stays empty because Angel's brother is off at college. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and now he's in his third year at Texas A&M. His name is Juan Jr, named after his dad. Until Juan got to college, he'd never started or ended school in the same place.

SPEAKER 28: OK, so what is the deceleration rate? So we want to know deceleration.

TENNESSEE WATSON: When I meet him, he's in a study room at the Texas A&M library reviewing for an exam he has the next morning.

SPEAKER 28: Here's a formula for stopping sight distance on a level road.

TENNESSEE WATSON: He's studying civil engineering with the dream of building one thing in particular-- his own house.

SPEAKER 28: I was always all over the place. Most of the time, I have been traveling a lot all over the place. And I want to take pride in the fact that I have my own house, but designed and built by me.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Juan is a junior. He's been in college for three years. But he says, he still has days when he's amazed he's here.

SPEAKER 28: And so it's like, wait a second, like, my grandparents come from this really small town in Mexico, in the middle of Mexico. And it's like, what? How did that transfer to my parents, and how did that transfer to me so quickly? You know what I'm saying? I don't have a background--

TENNESSEE WATSON: He doesn't know too many other first-generation college students like him.

SPEAKER 28: A lot of people that come to A&M, since A&M is like a tradition, a lot of people have their great grandfather's ring, like their A&M ring. And it's like, they come from a family of, like-- what's the word for it? Academic people, right?

TENNESSEE WATSON: Juan wants to be the one to start that tradition for his family. He thinks about that every time he prepares for an exam.

SPEAKER 28: I sit there, and I'm like, I feel like the entire weight is on my shoulders. Like, all the weight is on my shoulders, and everything depends on this exam. And it's bad that I do that, but I think of it like that.

TENNESSEE WATSON: For you and for your family.

SPEAKER 28: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And so I stress myself out so much because I know that I'm expected to be successful.

TENNESSEE WATSON: But he'd take that pressure over a long, hot day in the fields. That makes him think of one friend in particular who he's known since kindergarten.

SPEAKER 28: We were basically brought up through the same system.

TENNESSEE WATSON: They both had good grades. They both won national migrant student awards.

SPEAKER 28: But as soon as we got out of high school, his parents didn't really-- I feel like they didn't really back him up or instill that in him. My parents said, get financial aid, get scholarships, we'll figure it out. But you're going to college, right?

His parents basically said, $10,000 a year is crazy, right? We're never going to get money for that. We're never going to pay that.

TENNESSEE WATSON: Now, that friend is back doing farm work with his family to help make ends meet. Juan grew up doing farm work too, but only on the weekends when it wouldn't interfere with school. He knows his parents have sacrificed to make education a priority. They knew that getting Juan out of the fields and through college was essential. They wanted him to have a more prosperous life than they had.

SPEAKER 28: Like, I do have the single greatest support system ever in my parents. Like, my parents support me all the way.

TENNESSEE WATSON: And to show them how grateful he is--

SPEAKER 28: Well, my plan is, once I get my diploma, I'm planning to make a copy of it and then give the original to my parents. And the copy can go in my office because it's for my parents. You know what I'm saying? Like, I'm doing this for myself, right? But it's for my family.

And so I'm first generation, right? Now, it's expected of everyone else after me. You know what I'm saying? Like, I'm kind of setting the example. So now, it's like, OK, Angel.

TENNESSEE WATSON: And his brother, Angel, is fully on board. Next year, he'll be in 10th grade, and he's signed up to take advanced placement courses for college credit.

STEPHEN SMITH: That was reporter Tennessee Watson. I'm Stephen Smith. If Juan graduates from college, which he's determined to do, the hope is he'll expand opportunity for his family. But activist Norma Flores Lopez says, the job of lifting farm workers out of poverty shouldn't be put on kids.

NORMA LÓPEZ: If you eat, this falls on you. And so that pretty much is everybody in society.

STEPHEN SMITH: Kids from migrant worker families, kids who are homeless. The highly mobile lives of these children are a symptom of larger inequities. A school can't raise wages for migrant farm workers. A school can't build more affordable housing. But schools can be safe and consistent-- a haven of stability, at least for part of the year or part of the day. And if these kids want their adult lives to be more rooted, finishing school is their most reliable path.

You've been listening to "Students on the Move," a documentary from APM Reports. It was produced by Chris Julin and Tennessee Watson. The editor is Catherine Winter. Fact checker, Betsy Towner-Levine. Web editors are Andy Cruz and Dave Mann. Mixing by Craig Thorson. Our theme music is by Gary Meister. Thanks also to Chris Masini at Spokane Public Radio.

The APM Reports team includes Alex Baumhardt, Shelly Langford, John Hernandez, Emily Hanford, and Sasha Aslanian the editor in chief of APM Reports is Chris Worthington. I'm Stephen Smith.

We'd like to know what you thought about this program. Send us an email at, or find us on Facebook and Twitter @educatepodcast. That's one word. You can find out more about this story on our website-- And you can hear more of our education documentaries on our podcast "Educate." Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. This is APM-- American Public Media.

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