Traveler’s Aid

Marana Unified School District is helping migrant students succeed

Isela Mariscal is accustomed to moving with her husband and four children. A seasonal farmer worker, Pedro Mariscal spent five years working in apple and cherry orchards in Washington state. A year ago, as the work there dried up, they moved to Marana so Pedro could work on a small, local ranch.

Moving with the work is part of the job description of a migratory farm worker, but it can be difficult for their children to stay on track with school. A program in Marana Unified School District aims to help the Mariscal kids, and others in the same position, get on track to meet their education milestones.

MUSD's Migrant Education Program, also known as MEP, offers resources and services to support the educational success of the children, ages 3 through 21, of seasonal or temporary agricultural workers who have moved within the last three years. The work performed by the parents typically involves processing crops, dairy products, poultry or livestock, meat packing or cultivating and harvesting trees.

The Mariscal family previously lived in Tucson for 15 years before moving to Washington. Besides their four kids, their 15-year-old nephew recently came to live with them. Isela said she never knows how long they will stay somewhere—it depends on how long the work lasts.

The program is not tied to the immigration process and doesn't ask for people's immigration status. Rather, it assists families who are migratory, working in agriculture and moving because of financial necessity. The program currently has 17 students from eight families, who are majority Mexican-American.

"We want to make sure the migrant students can meet the educational goals and graduate," said Denise Linsalata, the MUSD director of state and federal programs.

MEP is federally funded and overseen by the Arizona Department of Education. MUSD receives a $19,000 yearly grant to provide and/or cover the cost of home visits, after-school tutoring, summer school, extracurricular classes, at-home academic support for preschoolers and interpreting for migrant parents at parent-teacher meetings and communicating with school staff.

MEP Specialist Corinna Pargas performs home visits, or families can come into the district office to talk about what services they may need.

"They're very welcoming," Pargas said about the home visits. "They know you're there to help them."

Pargas has connected the Mariscal family with clothes, food, school supplies and educational programs.

Isela's oldest daughter, 22, aged out of the MEP. But Pargas still helped her find an online program to finish high school. Isela said Pargas really looks out for the kids and makes sure they're treated well.

"You find these beautiful women, with beautiful smiles, that help us in everything they can," Isela said.

MUSD identifies qualifying students through a question in the enrollment packets, which asks families if they work or have worked in agriculture due to economic necessity.

While MUSD is the only district near Tucson and surrounding areas that has the program, they can assist families in neighboring districts.

The problem is that not all the districts identify migrant students. MEP is trying to get the identifying question in the surrounding districts' enrollment packets, and they currently assist two students in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

There's also a Migrant Parent Advisory Council, made up of parents whose children are in the program. They have four meetings a year to determine the families' needs and how to better serve them.

Families in MEP can also access resources from either of the district's two Family Resource Centers, which offer case management, counseling services, community resources and referrals and a food and clothing bank.

MUSD also has a number of public preschools, and Pargas helps get the younger kids ready for preschool by working with them on learning colors, numbers and shapes and providing games and books to the parents to continue preparing them.

Pargas also attends the parent teacher conferences and checks the kids' grades quarterly to make sure they're on track.

She said meeting the needs of migrant students is a team effort between her, Linsalata and the families.

And while some of the families are low-income, there are no financial qualifiers to qualify for the assistance.

"We've helped families tremendously," Pargas said. "Not only helping them get on board academically, but financially."

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