School migrates with pickers' children

January 28, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

PLANT CITY, Fla. -- When Michael Bueno's parents finished picking cucumbers and tomatoes in Ohio last fall, the family headed south for the strawberry season.

So did Michael's teachers.

Now, while his mother and father pick the berries from the fields surrounding this central Florida town, 6-year-old Michael plays alphabet bingo, learns his colors and practices his English in the same school he attended in Ohio. He's one of 15 students at La Escuela de San Jose, a one-of-a-kind traveling school founded by nuns for the children of migrant workers.

The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas are offering Michael and his classmates something most migrants' children don't get: the same school, class and teacher from September to June. The school is funded for three years by the Mercy Sisters in Silver Spring and Baltimore, the Marianist Brothers of Baltimore and several private foundations.

This tiny school with the big heart faces a formidable challenge: to follow a group of kindergartners and first-graders through the third grade. Millions of education dollars are spent annually on public school programs for an estimated 500,000 children of migrant workers. But academic and federal studies show that 60 percent of them never make it to the sixth grade.

Although some school districts have sent teachers to be with migrant children for several weeks at a time, federal officials and education specialists said they know of no other formal traveling school.

"Our hope is to give [the children] the skills and instill in them the confidence they need to stay in school, do well and ultimately graduate," said Sister Gaye Moorhead, a child welfare lawyer who oversees the Escuela de San Jose project.

The problems of migrant children are well known and documented: They are young transients who speak little or no English, live in poverty and often drop out of school to care for younger siblings or to work in the fields. Seasonal moves can put them in as many as three public schools during the academic year.

Different teachers. Different classmates. Different books. When they do go to school, migrant children are always trying to catch up. Some fall further behind.

When Sister Gaye and the San Jose team began recruiting students last summer, Consuelo Bueno didn't need much convincing to enroll her son Michael. Herself one of 10 children of migrant farm workers, Mrs. Bueno spent her youth traveling between Texas and Florida, changing schools as she went.

"We didn't learn that much. All the children were ahead of us," said Mrs. Bueno, 32, who never finished high school. "I liked school, but we had to work."

The San Jose school offered Mrs. Bueno and her husband, Martin, a chance to break the cycle. Their two oldest sons, 11-year-old Jose and 9-year-old Martin Jr., had been in and out of public schools. Maybe Michael could escape that instability.

When the school opened in late summer in a borrowed classroom at a Roman Catholic school in Fremont, Ohio, the youngster was among the kindergartners. When the school followed its students south, Michael was among the first rambunctious returnees.

"They go to other schools, and they go out and go in. They're too behind," Mrs. Bueno said of her older children. But now it's different for Michael. "My husband and I were saying he was learning more English than the other kids at their age.

"He likes going to school."

The first-graders in Sister Patricia Lamb's class are adding cats and subtracting fishes. The busy plying of pluses and minuses is accompanied by the chatter of children speaking Spanish and English.

"Silencio, por favor," Sister Pat says as she heads for the blackboard. "OK, girls, we're going to make a set of houses . . . six houses. I want you to take away four."

Little hands with big pencils are finishing the equation: 6 - 4 = 2.

The winter-spring residence of the San Jose school is a Catholic education center on the outskirts of Plant City, 23 miles east of Tampa. Two classrooms house the school's kindergarten and first grade.

La Escuela de San Jose has the look and feel of its more stationary counterparts. ABCs and hand-colored drawings decorate the walls. Crayon boxes and children's scissors fill cubby holes. At lunch, pizza is in; carrots are out. Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles are talked about more readily than the Three Little Pigs.

"They love stories. They love books," Sister Pat says. "I find them as a group very bright and eager to learn. They speak very good English. They also speak perfect Spanish. They are young enough to learn . . . if given the chance [they] will make a difference."

The idea of a traveling school had been percolating in Sister Gaye's mind for almost three decades. In 1968, as a 20-year-old VISTA volunteer in upstate New York, she ran a day-care center for the children of apple pickers.

One day she visited the "school" for the older youngsters. A retired kindergarten teacher taught about three dozen children, ages 5 through 12, in one room.

That memory stayed with her.

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