Hysham is a small town of about 300 people in the southeastern part of Montana. Seen from the air on a spring day, a sea of bright green fields surround several buildings that dot the landscape. In late May, migrant workers start arriving to hoe sugar beets on those fields. They stay until mid-July before moving on to cultivate or harvest another seasonal crop.
The U.S Department of Labor estimates that there are about 800,000 migrant agricultural workers in the United States. These workers are primarily Hispanic, and represent one of the poorest populations in the country, with an average annual income of about $5,000 to $6,000. Migrant workers are mostly undocumented, seldom fluent in English, and, on average, have completed less than eight years of formal schooling.
Working beets is hot and hard work, but at night many youngsters get down and dirty again doing homework.
As isolated as their lives sound, they are as high-tech off the beet fields as any other student in the nation. They use laptops to keep in touch with their home school district and to complete their school work.
That's right, their laptops are Toshiba computers with at least a 2 GB hard drive, 166MHz processor, CD-ROM, floppy drive, and 33.6 fax modem. The software includes Windows 95/98, Microsoft Office 97, Encarta and Targus portfolio cases.
Where Do They Find The Phone Lines?
If there's no phone line, we'll get them one," says Richard Trevi?o, director of special programs at the University of Texas Pan Am in Edinburgh.
Trevi?o is one of several dozen educators who coordinate Estrella, a five-year interstate initiative funded by the U. S. Department of Education, Office of Migrant Education. Its goal is to demonstrate the applicability of technology to the education and advancement of migrant farm-worker students. Estrella, which means "star" in Spanish, is one of five projects across the country chosen to develop and disseminate methods and materials that effectively use technology as a tool in the education process. Through the program, laptop computer technology and telecommunications are brought directly into the hands of migrant students. This distance-learning project is modeled after an earlier pilot program, The Lone Star to the Big Sky II, which was successfully operated in Montana and Texas during the summer of 1996.
At Fromberg (Mont.) Elementary School, about 60 students in pre-K through high school participate in Estrella, Project Smart, NovaNet and several other computer-aided activities. Through NovaNet, students get a comprehensive instructional delivery system consisting of both middle and high school courses, GED and proficiency testing preparation as well as school-to-work planning and advice.
At the heart of Estrella is the collaborative effort between the migrant students' homebase state of Texas and the "receiving states" of Illinois, Minnesota, Montana and New York, where students move during the agricultural season of planting, cultivating and harvesting. Coordination is essential for continuity of instruction, credit accrual and seamless service delivery.
Collaboration is supported through the Estrella Web site home page, which offers both instructors and students a place to share ideas and information. In addition, collaboration exists when teachers, family and friends communicate with one another using electronic mail and the NovaNET distance learning program.
Estrella students can remain connected with curriculum approved in their home school despite being far away.
According to Trevi?o, most kids in the program have a hard time juggling all-day work and homework at night. "But one of the advantages of Estrella is that the instruction doesn't have to take place during the normal school day. The lessons are waiting on the server until the students have time to settle down and complete them."
Estrella also encourages writing through its visual learning component. Combining the technologies of instant photography, scanners and computers to motivate students to write, the project collaborates with the Polaroid Education Project to develop students' written communication skills. The Estrella newsletter, Estupendas Estrellas' Laptop Talk, gives students the opportunity to see their work published. Family members can also access educational materials on NovaNET to find a broad range of information that helps the family, such as Blue Web'n Learning Library (www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/bluewebn/), Family.com (family.go.com/), Family Friends School (www.familyfriendlyschools.org/) and KidsHealth (kidshealth.org/).
College-Age Cyber Mentors
Besides laptops and distance learning, a cyber mentor component to Estrella assists migrant students in the transition from high school to post-secondary education, helps to inform them of career options and provides them with positive role models. Because most migrant families have no experience with post-secondary education, the link to a mentor provides a critical bridge to opportunities beyond high school.
"We have a federal program on campus called CAMP," or College Assistance Migrant Program, says Trevi?o. "What we do is support migrant or seasonal farmworking students during their first year in college. We identify kids in the Estrella program who are college-bound and pair them with 20 to 25 volunteer cyber mentors who work with CAMP. The mentors will keep contact with mentees about financial aid, college preparation-all by e-mail. At least twice during the year they meet face-to-face."
Enedelia R?os, 21, is a junior at University of Texas Pan Am and one of CAMP's cyber mentors.
"I volunteered during my freshman year," says the mathematics major. "Right now I have two mentees-a boy who's a senior in high school and a girl, who's a junior. We e-mail each at least four times a month, and sometimes more."
R?os says the e-mail conversations cover a gamut of topics about getting ready for college-choosing a college, choosing a major, taking standardized tests and filling out applications. Sometimes, R?os says, her mentees drift off into talking about their families and friends, but she has been trained through CAMP to steer them back onto school-related topics. R?os says her career plans are to teach and then move into school administration and "hopefully" become a principal.
The Latest Technology
The laptops issued to students are generally the latest in hardware and software. Older models are upgraded on a regular basis. An ongoing review of available software ensures the needs of students and their families can be met.
In addition, students are provided with an individual Internet account. To limit their Internet access, monitoring and control software is installed as a filtering device. An extensive list provides students with hundreds of educationally sound and safe sites to explore. Estrella also has an acceptable use policy for the Internet.
As high school students travel with their laptops, they have access to online course work provided through NovaNET. This online instruction allows for continuity with the curriculum of their Texas homebase school district. Students work at home, at school, at the library-anywhere at anytime. They can work toward earning credits and meeting requirements for graduation. They also may prepare for exit-level, standards-based testing, such as the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which is required for high school graduation.
For students to participate in Estrella, their parents must join with their children in computer training and become active partners in their children's educational journey. Each family signs a contract promising to protect and maintain the computer equipment. In addition, parents promise to provide an atmosphere that encourages their children's participation in the program. Currently, there are 60 students enrolled in Estrella. Of the first 35 students who participated in 1997, eight graduated from high school and the rest showed educational progress including course credits earned, grade level promotions or standardized tests attempted and passed. Nationally, about half of all children in migrant families drop out of school before entering high school. Of the eight high school seniors who graduated, five enrolled in college.
Parents and other family members can access NovaNET online resources, which offer a broad range of information to help the family. There are GED materials, courses for learning English and other basic skills resources to assist parents and family members in reaching their educational goals and interests.
Finally, professional development is a critical feature of Estrella. Teachers and staff participate in training sessions related to the various components of the project, including NovaNET, visual learning, Internet style of learning, and computer software applications use. Hands-on computer workshops focus on the integration of technology applications available on students' laptop computers into the online curriculum at NovaNet.
Teachers also receive the "InTouch with Learning" subscription which offers the chance to participate in face-to-face workshops, online workshops and self-paced learning resources. Subscribers may access the workshops and resources via the "InTouch with Learning" Web site. A CD-ROM provides access to a library of professional development resources. "InTouch with Learning" is also developing an online community for teachers to share ideas and materials.
"We would prefer that the kids in Estrella stay in school year-round, but economics mandates that they get up and supplement the family income," Trevi?o says. "Most parents will not sacrifice by leaving their children behind. But now with the technology at our disposal, these migrants kids can take school with them."
Charles Shields, email@example.com, is a contributing editor and 20-year veteran educator based in suburban Chicago.