Former Migrant Students Teach the Next Generation How to Turn Disadvantage into Advantage

Coordinator Maria Avelar and tutor Kayla Ochoa discuss Kayla’s most recent tutoring lesson at Kern Avenue Elementary in McFarland. Photo credit: Alyssa Morones

At the back of a third grade classroom at Kern Avenue Elementary School in McFarland, a rural town in California’s Central Valley, first-year college student Kayla Ochoa sits at a small table with three students.

Ochoa holds up a flashcard.

“Better!” the three girls read aloud together.

“I’m getting better at reading,” offers one of the students, smiling as she uses the word in a sentence.

Ochoa is a member of the Mini-Corps program at California State University Bakersfield. Mini-Corps is a statewide program that operates out of the Butte County Office of Education in Oroville. It began in 1967 and now exists at 22 California universities. CSUB’s branch’s serves about 600 students in Kern County.

California’s agricultural system relies on migrant workers—the Central Valley alone produces a fourth of the nation’s food—but frequent moves can hamper migrant children’s education. The Mini-Corps program helps by turning the experiences that could have been a disadvantage growing up into an advantage for both its tutors, the students they serve and the schools they attend.

By recruiting bilingual college students with migrant backgrounds (or familiarity with the culture) to serve as tutors to migrant students in their area, the program aims to benefit both groups and to create a pipeline of bilingual educators. Tutors are also paid for their time.

Migrant students, whose families move throughout the year to follow crop harvests, face extra challenges in their education, often need to learn a new language other than the one their parents speak and switching schools part-way through the year, year after year.

“It’s hard to understand how that feels,” said Ochoa, 20, whose parents worked as migrant farmworkers in the Central Valley when she was growing up.

Students are “thrown into something new, or sometimes teachers don’t speak Spanish and can’t communicate or don’t have the time to focus on just one student—it’s a challenge,” Ochoa said.

‘A Shared Culture’

Mini-Corps works with other area migrant programs to counter these challenges, both through specialized instruction and the connection tutors build with their students.

The tutors, who must be bilingual in English and Spanish, or English and another language such as Punjabi or Tagolog, assist during the school day or at afterschool and summer programs. They go over curriculum and language acquisition in small groups or one-on one. The program administers assessments to students to track their progress.

“The migrant students identify with Mini-Corps tutors because they have a shared language, a shared culture,” said Alma Kumar, 49, one of the Mini-Corps coordinators at CSUB and a former migrant student. Kumar was also a Mini-Corps tutor and a classroom teacher for eight years.

This positive rapport helps students make academic progress, she said. Research has also shown that cultural understanding can improve education outcomes.

Additionally, tutors sometimes meet or speak over the phone with parents to go over their children’s progress. Tutors offer ways that parents can help their children at home or tell them about other school programs that the students might benefit from.

Yesica Vasquez, an eighth grade student in the after-school migrant education program at Haven Drive Middle School in Arvin, struggled with English when she entered school, having grown up speaking Spanish. She started the migrant program in second grade.

“When I started the migrant program, I had a Mini-Corps tutor who helped me a lot with English and language and writing,” she said. “At first, it was difficult, but then it got easier.”

Yesica now speaks English fluently. She hopes to study science at Princeton one day and to become a labor and delivery nurse.

The Mini-Corps tutor at Haven helps students in the after-school program with that day’s math and English homework. Favian Zamudio, also an eighth grade student in the migrant program, said that with the extra help, he understands things better and gets better grades.

And both students said they value their education.

“Education gives you more chance of success,” Favian said. He said he enjoys English and language arts and wants to study English at Stanford to pursue a career as an English teacher and author.

Thousands Unreached

Cecilia Lopez, a migrant worker whose child is part of the pre-kindergarten migrant program at Bessie Owens Elementary in Bakersfield, said that one of her concerns is that she won’t be able to help her child with her homework because of the language barrier. She said that the Mini-Corps tutor who assists in the class is attentive to her child’s education, and passionate about helping. The tutor has provided suggestions with ways she can help her child at home.

However, the program is limited in how much it can help.

Maria Avelar, also a Mini-Corps coordinator at CSUB, and former Mini-Corps member and classroom teacher for 16 years, said, “If a student moves, they may not be getting the same small group attention where they go.”

While Mini-Corps works with districts to target the students most in need, there are more than 7,500 migrant students in the greater Kern County area that program doesn’t have the resources to reach.

And migrant students’ challenges aren’t limited to the quantifiable.

Rosalva Flores, whose child is in the pre-kindergarten program in Bakersfield, described the “curtain” she often feels is up for migrant students, when the migrant worker lifestyle is all they’ve known.

“I want to take down that curtain for them,” she said. “I want to show them there’s other options, if they stay in school.”

The Mini-Corps tutors provide at least one example of where education can lead them.

“We have a connection,” said Avelar, 40, who was also a migrant student in Kern County, after moving to the area from Mexico at the age of 10. “We understand what it’s like to move back and forth and to struggle and try harder.”

Future Bilingual Educators

Ochoa has known she wants to be a teacher since third grade. Her teacher that year had been a member of Mini-Corps during her time in college.

“She inspired me,” said Ochoa. Now, “I want to be an inspiration.”

In creating a pipeline of educators, the program also serves as a means of diversifying the teacher workforce and encouraging more bilingual educators with experience teaching English-language learners—qualifications likely to be in increased demand in the wake of California’s passage in 2016 of Proposition 58, which removed restrictions on bilingual education programs.

Mini-Corps program coordinators, who come with years of classroom teaching experience, help the tutors navigate the education system as they pursue their college degrees and prepare to earn their teaching credentials. Many of the tutors are the first in their families to attend college.

By the time Mini-Corps tutors enter a credential program, “they’ve already been exposed to lesson planning, classroom management, education pedagogy, so they are prepared,” Kumar said.

Francisco Flores, Principal of Kern Avenue Elementary, said Mini-Corps teachers stand out in an applicant pool. “If you hire a teacher who was in Mini-Corps, that teacher comes with a lot of professional development they received over the course of their education,” he said. “These brand new teachers are already ahead.”

This is not insignificant, given that studies have shown a link between teacher experience and student benefits.

“We’re helping to develop our future bilingual educators in the state of California,” Kumar said.

It’s already possible to see the cycle of education and educators continuing.

When asked what they want to be when they grow up, the students in Ochoa’s small group are eager to share their career and education plans. Two of the three students want to be teachers, like their tutor is working to become.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do before,” said one of the third graders in Ochoa’s small group, “but when Miss Ochoa came, I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”

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