Centralia’s migrant students are faced with a set of challenges that often hampers their educational pathway.
The children move at least every three years to accompany their parents or guardians who are migratory workers, reported The Chronicle.
The large number of moves and other responsibilities at home make it difficult for the students to graduate, said Shelley Habenicht, the school district’s director of special programs and assistance.
This year, the Centralia School District received a federal grant of over $16,000 to provide the population with a Migrant Summer School, a supplemental program aimed to help the students further their education.
Out of the 40 students who signed up for the two-week program, only 29 of them showed, but those numbers are still a reason for the district to be excited.
“It’s often difficult to get this population to sign up for extra things outside of school because they might be asked to work with their parents, or their parents can’t get them to an activity like this, or they might be asked to watch their little siblings,” Habenicht said.
The program has a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old who prior to joining the school district last fall had never attended school before. Although rare in the United States, district Communications and Public Relations Coordinator Ed Petersen said it is fairly common in the countries the students come from.
The students in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — -focused program are all English-language learners, most of whom come from Spanish-speaking countries like Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.
The district has been administering the program Engineering is Elementary to the students, a completely new tool for the district, Habenicht said.
The hands-on program caters to first through eighth grades and focuses largely on academic language.
“When they came in here, I didn’t have any familiarity with the scientific process,” Kate Steward, a teacher in the migrant school program, said of her sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. “I think it’s making a lasting impression.”
Steward, who typically teaches fourth grade at Washington Elementary, is the only teacher in the summer school familiar with the Engineering is Elementary program.
“A lot of people think of science as being very technical and analytical,” she said. “This gives kids an opportunity to see how creativity fits into the scientific process.”
Her group of students worked in teams to create plastic out of plant material. The goal is to find the right combination to hold 2 pounds of weight with the plastic they created.
The exciting part about the program is the students who a little over a week ago didn’t know the scientific process at all can now see themselves in STEM-based careers.
“I think this is a really valuable experience for these kids,” Steward said.
The younger groups in the program also focused heavily on science-based learning. The first-, second- and third-graders worked on a project to remove oil from water. Using equipment including nylon, cotton balls and rubber bands, the students had to figure out what would absorb the vegetable oil most effectively from a cup of water.
Later in the week the students were to conduct water testing in the Skookumchuck River and other waterways.
As for the middle-aged group, the students created vehicles out of recyclables, each focused on a different mission, whether it be speed or carrying a certain payload.
“I think to be realizing that we are all engineers and that we all have something to contribute when we put our heads together, there are great things that come out of that,” said teacher Julie Broom.
Broom, a second-grade teacher at Fords Prairie Elementary School, has 37 years of experience as an educator.
She has seen a high level of engagement with the kids utilizing the Engineering is Elementary program, and she plans to bring it back to her classroom.
“This is a very progressive way of teaching,” she said. “I think sometimes kids are the best engineers because they don’t have defined ideas about things. It’s anybody’s guess what they can put together.”
For 9-year-old Steven V., this was his first time in summer school. He was excited to talk about his model car.
“We have to try to make the wheels roll and make it go through obstacles like bumps and dirt,” he explained.
Prior to attending the program, the incoming fourth-grader said he had never built anything from scratch. The lesson has already opened new doors for him, as he said he is excited to continue creating things in the future.
The Centralia School District has a migrant population of around 3 percent of all students.
Habenicht explained that although the numbers seem to be going down, a lot of that is because in many families only one parent now travels for work, which disqualifies the student from the migrant category.
To be categorized as a migrant student, the entire family has to move, she said.
“Although the numbers are declining, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the number of students that have these circumstances or these certain challenges that the migrant students face is declining,” Petersen said. “They still have some of the language barriers and other issues.”
To help the students during the regular school year, Habenicht said, the district has been working to expand its EL program, especially at the middle school and high school levels. This year, the district will add two new courses at both schools, with the intent of adding two more in the future.
The district has also been training teachers so they can better serve the English Language Learner population.
“It’s a big shift for our teachers to recognize that we’ll have EL students in every classroom … for the near foreseeable future,” she said. “We all have to be able to have those skills.”
The district has a checklist of sorts for the teachers to incorporate into their lesson plans to help the English Language Learners. The list, however, is difficult for an untrained teacher because there are 70-some marks they should hit.
“While we started training teachers last year, it will take a while to get every teacher trained,” Habenicht said.
The checklist, which includes steps like repeating the information multiple times and gives students time to discuss lessons, benefits other students as well.
“It has a really positive effect because what we find is a lot of kids need more time on intentional teaching of vocabulary,” Habenicht said. “We find that a lot of kids need that, even if they are English speakers.”
The academic language plays an especially important part, since neither English-language learners or other students typically use the jargon at home.
“That protocol really helps teachers to focus their thinking,” she said. “It helps all kids and in particular kids in poverty who may not be getting that type of experience at home.”
The Migrant School Program is taught entirely in English, but paraeducators are available for translation if the students need it. Along with the academic lessons they receive, the students have been exposed to a variety of life experiences.
Last Friday, the program went on a field trip and took a ferry to Bainbridge Island. Along with learning about topography, they learned about orcas, and ended the day with a trip to the Seattle aquarium.
“They’ve never been on a boat before, they’ve never seen saltwater,” Habenicht said. “It was heartwarming and wonderful.”
So far, the program in its first year has been successful, and Habenicht said she would like to continue it in future years.