Fields of dream

16th May 1997 at 01:00
For six months of every year, 16-year-old Arely lives the life of a workaholic. Ten hours of every day, she is out in the fields of Minnesota, weeding and thinning sugar beets. After her long, hot day - which allows for one 30-minute break for lunch - she returns to the family's trailer for supper, helps with chores, has a chat and then goes to bed.

Until, that is, the alarm goes off at 2am. This is her homework time. And it is non-negotiable. "It's the only time you can get any quiet to sit down and work in," she told me at Eagle Pass High School on the Texas-Mexico border."When you're living with so many people in such a small space, the only way I can concentrate is to do my schoolwork when everybody else is asleep."

From October to April of every year, Arely's life is different: she goes to school, does her homework in the evenings, hangs out with friends at weekends, talks on the phone. But come springtime, she and her family pack up the car and head north to Minnesota, where they work on the land and in canning factories until October. Then they come back home and resume normal life for six months before hitting the trail again.

Arely is one of 409 students (about one-fifth of the total student population) at Eagle Pass to follow this harsh lifestyle. But instead of grapes of wrath, Arely and her fellow migrants have laptops of hope.

When she clambers out of bed to do her homework, there are no papers to rustle or pens to find. She sits in front of an Apple Mac powerbook doing the same work that her classmates back in Texas have done that day. If there is a problem, she e-mails her teacher in Eagle Pass via the laptop's built-in modem, transmitted on a freephone number. All of her work is logged in and the time of entry and exit is recorded for her teachers to see. If she spends four minutes on her algebra, she knows there will be an e-mail from her teacher the next day saying something to the effect of "Hey, Arely, where's the fire?"

The Migrant Education Programme, run by Eagle Pass Independent School District - and one of several in Texas - has ensured that migrant students at the high school are able to achieve what was once the unachievable: an uninterrupted high school education, a high school diploma, the expectation of going to college and the aspiration of a professiona l career. Most of the 40 participants in the Laptop Distance Learning Programme, all of whom are either Mexican-born or first generation Mexican-American, are the first in their families to have been given the tools to achieve their educational aspirations.

For generations, economic necessity has propelled migrant workers northwards for seasonal fruit-picking. Most have abandoned education. But since 1991, a number of the migrant children at Eagle Pass High have been given new Apple Mac powerbooks loaded up with NovaNET curriculum and TAAS preparation software to allow them to follow a distance learning programme modelled on the classroom work which they are thousands of miles away from.

Eagle Pass teachers have adapted and customised the programmes to conform to the Texas curriculum. Students work at their own pace and must get a minimum number of questions correct on mini-tests at the end of each lesson before moving on to the next one. At present, the distance learning materials are only available for maths and English.

The project was set up in 1991 under Lana Harper, special populations director for the school district, and has been funded mainly from joint federal and school district grants.

The 10 Eagle Pass students who migrate from Texas (the Lone Star state) to Montana (the Big Sky state) are separately funded by a programme aptly named Lone Star to the Big Sky. Under this programme, funded by the state of Montana, students have the added advantage of access to "cyber counsellors" - college students in Montana who can give guidance and advice on the technology and the curricular work. There is also an evening school facility where students can bring their laptops, get teacher support and be assured of phone lines for e-mailing their work back to Texas.

Sixteen-year-oldGabriela describes her day: "We work from 5am to 6pm hoeing beets and then from 7 to 10 we go to night school with our laptops. A bus takes us, because the school is 20 miles away. Sometimes we get a chance to shower before getting on the bus and other times, not - we go all hot and sweaty."

What drives these kids to work as hard as they do? Like other teenagers, they question and rebel against the lifestyles forced upon them by high local unemployment and family tradition. "I'm always telling my parents, why do I have to do this? All the other kids are spending nice summers on vacation and I'm having to work so hard," says Gabriela. But 14-year-old Brenda is more circumspect. "I say to myself that I want to study, that I want to do something with my life. When we're up north...we're tired, but we know that we're doing something good for ourselves."

The programme's impact is as obvious to high school staff as to the students. "The effects are measurable," says Eagle Pass principal Joe Guerra. "The students get much closer attention because the teacher is right there at the other end of the modem, giving one-on-one help and feedback."

He has also seen how it has affected students' and families' attitudes to education, remembering the bad old days 30 years ago when all migrant children were segregated from the mainstream school in their own units. Few hung around for their diplomas. Today, there is a range of services alongside the laptop programme to minimise many of the difficulties presented by migrancy, including specialist counsellors in the school, after-school and summer programmes.

"The students have to be very motivated to work like this (distance learning), but they get a lot of support from their families. By the time they get to their final year, many stay behind in Texas to complete their year without interruption. Graduation figures are very high for students in the programme," says Mr Guerra. It

is a measure of their determination to succeed that many use the laptops before they go up north to move ahead with their work, gaining extra credits that will allow them to graduate early and start college at an advantage.

Javier, an 18-year-old graduating this summer, is in Eagle Pass's Gifted and Talented Programme for English, an accelerated learning programme which operates in all school districts. He has managed to clear his English coursework early in the semester so that, in his words, "I don't have to take it away with me."

He's on course to get a special migrants' scholarship to the local college, St Andrews, like his brother and sisters before him. "You live through the hard work and the troubles that your parents go through to get by. And you know that if you want to get on, if you want to avoid going through the same things, there's only one way to do it: education."

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