Oct 12 2006

As Distance Learning Programs Reach More Migrant Students, Graduation Rates Continue To Increase

Distance learning programs aid many communities, but they are arguably most valuable to migrant students. By enabling students to complete coursework when they’re on the road, educators have been able to significantly increase graduation rates.

While distance learning programs have served many different communities, none have provided as much educational support and opportunity as those projects designed to bring online curricula to migrant students. With some 126,000 adolescents ages 14 to 17 working on America’s farms each year, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s no surprise that the national high school dropout rate for migrant children stands at 45 percent.

But help is on the way for the approximately 784,000 migrant children identified for participation in the U.S. Department of Education’s Title 1 Migrant Education Program. Under this program, migrant students are eligible to participate in distance learning initiatives. Two such programs—ESTRELLA in Illinois and Migrants Achieving Success, or MAS+, in Texas—have seen the high school dropout rate fall and graduation rates increase for participating migrant students.

Both ESTRELLA and MAS+ offer notebook computers, online access and instructional support to migrant students, allowing them to complete coursework while on the road. ESTRELLA reported a 92 percent graduation rate in 2002, up from 51 percent 10 years earlier.

ESTRELLA, a five-year interstate initiative, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Migrant Education, demonstrated the applicability of technology to the education and advancement of migrant farm worker students. According to Brenda Pessin, director of migrant education for the Illinois Migrant Council, students came from six school districts in Texas: four from the Rio Grande Valley area and two from the Wintergarden area.

“All students were given notebooks to take with them while they migrated to one of the four receiving states—Illinois, Minnesota, Montana and New York—where students go with their families to work in agricultural fields or processing plants,” Pessin says.

As a distance learning project, ESTRELLA bridged the gap between migrant students and accessible education by developing and disseminating technological methods and materials as a tool in the education process. This project was modeled after Lone Star to the Big Sky II, a successful pilot program operated in Montana and Texas during the summer of 1996.

Part of the program’s success has been attributed to communication. “Coordination was essential to maintain continuity of instruction, credit accrual and seamless service delivery,” Pessin says. ESTRELLA supported this collaboration through its Web site, which provided instructors and students with an online venue to share ideas and information, beyond serving as a place for learning. In addition, teachers, family and friends communicated and collaborated using e-mail and Pearson Digital Learning’s NovaNet distance learning program.

“When students were in the northern states, they were enrolled in a local migrant education program, where they had strong instructional support,” Pessin says. “The teachers were there, mainly in the evenings.” Because the students generally worked all day, the evening was likely the only time available for coursework. “Each student had access to online curriculum via NovaNet,” Pessin says.

Chosen by the home school districts of the migrant students, NovaNet is a comprehensive instructional delivery system, which includes middle and high school courses, and GED and proficiency testing preparation. Through NovaNet, ESTRELLA students remained connected with curriculum approved in their home school even when they were geographically distant from that school. “Family members could also access education materials on NovaNet, which helped keep the parents of migrant students more closely connected with their children’s education,” Pessin says.

Traveling families had toll-free phone and pager numbers for the interstate student coordinator so they could receive technical support and other needed services. The coordinator kept track of ESTRELLA students as they logged into NovaNet and worked on their coursework. When students returned to their home base in Texas, the interstate student coordinator reviewed their work to date and generated a progress report. The coordinator then shared the report and any other pertinent information with each student’s home-base school counselor to ensure proper course placement and posting of course credit.

“As students successfully completed a course, there was no dispute over whether the home school district would accept the credit as valid,” Pessin says. “Accrual of credits for migrant secondary students is a critical issue because, as they move around, they tend to lose credits. Either courses are not finished or, even if they are, credits are often not transferred properly to the home school. ESTRELLA staff made sure that all students’ work was properly credited to them.” As a result, students had a 94 percent course completion rate in ESTRELLA.

That success rate can be directly related to the structure of ESTRELLA. “We motivated the students by providing considerable instructional support,” Pessin says. “We never just gave students notebooks and online access and left them to their own devices. We always made sure they had ongoing support to help them succeed.”

Another helpful feature was that the coursework did not have to be done within the school year in order for students to get credit. “Due to their work obligations, some students just can’t finish work in semester time,” Pessin says. So the program put no restrictions on when the credit was valid. “If a student started a course one summer and then finished it the following summer, the extra time they needed made all the difference,” she says.

Serves as a Model

Although ESTRELLA stopped operations due to lack of funding, it serves as a model for other similar programs around the country. One of those programs, Migrants Achieving Success, or MAS+, is being headed up by Micha Villarreal, coordinator of instructional technology initiatives at Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso, Texas.

“Brenda Pessin gave us a good start,” Villarreal says. “The first year of the program [2002-2003], we had 25 notebooks that were placed in the Ysleta High School campus. Eighteen kids at Ysleta participated, but we got a late start because we felt the need to clearly think out our goals, meet with students and parents beforehand, and get the notebooks up and running.”

One of the main goals of MAS+ is credit recovery for those students who traditionally get left behind because they move around or need to work to help support their families. Access is also an issue for many kids from low-income families who can’t afford the technology or Internet access at home. No access means these kids have to work in the school library or computer lab. “But once the school closes, they’re out of luck,” Villarreal says. That’s when they start to fall behind.

Having notebooks to access NovaNet at home in the evenings offers these students the chance to make up credits or keep up with the coursework. But Yselta students don’t work in isolation. “The program requires that a teacher be checking in, following up and giving them feedback on work,” Villarreal says. “It provides an opportunity for kids to get credit for classes that they missed the first time around, an alternative way for us to give kids credit that they wouldn’t get otherwise.”

After the first year, there was a significant improvement in graduation rates for migrant students in the district compared with numbers for the state of Texas: 93.33 percent in 2001-2002 school year, compared with 84.81 percent statewide.

While many parents of migrant students travel during the summer, the MAS+ students don’t physically leave the campus. “If they do go, they’re not gone for long,” Villarreal says. “Kids take the notebooks home and connect to the remote access server and to NovaNet in order to complete their coursework at home. To do research, the students also have filtered Internet access through the district server.”

But language is often an issue with immigrants. Almost all speak English, but some are still more comfortable and fluent in Spanish. And, according to Villarreal, it’s a factor in the dropout rate. “Our work is done in English, but all kids have an opportunity for ESL classes,” she says. There’s a center where the students can go for extra help as they need it, from getting translations to finding help in certain subjects they may not understand.

While the program has proved somewhat successful in its first year, Villarreal and her team decided to give it an overhaul and approach things differently this year. “Some of the kids took it seriously and some didn’t,” she says. “We found out this year that our area’s migratory families travel to nearby southern New Mexico, so many are not physically gone from school for large amounts of time. For most students, access is the issue along with the need for face-to-face meetings on a regular basis.”

Because this is an after-hours program, the students need extensive and regular teacher support. “We set up common time once a week (before or after the regular school day) to talk about where they are with coursework, help the students prepare for college and explore possible professions so they can start thinking about the future,” she adds. “We’re hoping that at the end of this year, the dropout rates will decrease, and students will be finishing more credits.”

Making a Difference

This kind of encouragement and support is exactly what these kids need to help them break the cycle of poverty in which many of them live, according to Angela Branz-Spall, the ESEA Title I migrant director for the state of Montana. She believes that technology has made a huge difference in the lives of migrant students. “Instructionally, technology has allowed us to design programs that suit kids who are mobile and hard to reach,” she explains.

It is axiomatic, however, that the programs will not work unless students are willing to participate. Out of a total of 47 students who qualify for the program from both Ysleta High School and Riverside High School, for example, only 25 are currently participating. But, for the students who do participate, MAS+ has made a difference in their lives. Most graduate and some go on to college.

That’s enough to keep the program going and to justify expansion across the entire school district. Villarreal’s goal is to have this program available in all seven high schools in the district. The plan includes purchasing 20 more notebooks for next year, which will go to a third Ysleta high school with high numbers of migrant students.

Clearly, distance learning programs can go a long way toward helping migrant students be successful in school. The ESTRELLA and MAS+ programs are proof of that.