RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's the season for harvesting pumpkins and other fall crops. In a few weeks, though, migrant farm workers in the Midwest will be heading south for winter crops. And for their children, some of the country's poorest and most undereducated, that move can have a big impact. Peter Balonon-Rosen from Indiana Public Broadcasting brings us this story of a preschool trying to change that.
PETER BALONON-ROSEN, BYLINE: Children of migrant farm workers can be hard to track down, but that's exactly what their preschool needs to do.
RAY MELECIO: Staff go into the fields trying to find and talk to these families and see if they want to enroll their kids in the program.
BALONON-ROSEN: Ray Melecio is assistant director for ESCOURT, an assistance center for migrant education programs.
MELECIO: And sometimes, these families might not be found. Sometimes these families don't want to be found.
BALONON-ROSEN: Many migrant workers start the year in southern states, like Florida or Texas, then travel north, following farm work.
ANAYELI CAMACHO: (Through interpreter) I like it here because the work is easier, and they care for the kids.
BALONON-ROSEN: For a decade, Anayeli Camacho has migrated between farms in Florida and Indiana. She says she likes the work here in Indiana and the schools for her daughters. She enrolls her youngest, 4-year-old Ximena, at the public migrant preschool near the trailer she rents in rural Oaktown. On a recent Monday at 6:30 a.m., Ximena's bus to preschool waits on the gravel road outside. Onboard, a teacher buckles Ximena into a car seat. Soon, almost all of the children fall asleep. Makes sense - it's Monday. To and from farms on the way to school, it's an hour bus ride, and it's still dark.
DEBBIE GRIES: We run our morning route really early because most of the parents, they are starting when it's light outside.
BALONON-ROSEN: Debbie Gries is education coordinator for southwest Indiana's Migrant Regional Center. The center provides free preschool to families who come up for the season from Georgia, Florida, Texas.
GRIES: Because their parents move around a lot, they don't have the stability of being in one location for very long where they might be able to take advantage of other preschool services.
BALONON-ROSEN: Or move with many books, toys - items that help little ones learn. So when Ximena and classmates get to preschool, just as the sun rises, the focus is learning. The preschool's goal - get kids prepared for kindergarten, wherever that may be.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BALONON-ROSEN: So there are songs full of English vocabulary.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Like a lion.
BALONON-ROSEN: And math, too. Four-year-old Ximena proudly shows off her numbers.
XIMENA: One, two, three, four, five. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco.
BALONON-ROSEN: And there's preschool geometry, too.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What shape is this?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Circle, very good.
BALONON-ROSEN: As much as migrant children travel, so can education. The federal government spends about $365 million dollars each year to fund migrant education programs in 47 states. And preschool takes different shapes. Sometimes it's through local district services. In farm areas with few families, tutors can visit children at home. Or when there is a concentration of migrant children, a preschool center, like here, in southwest Indiana.
MIRNA SANDOVAL: Hakuna matata.
BALONON-ROSEN: Mirna Sandoval used to be a migrant worker. Now, she's these children's teacher, reading "The Lion King" in Spanish.
SANDOVAL: (Speaking Spanish).
XIMENA: Hakuna matata.
BALONON-ROSEN: After school, back on the bus, kids sit again, buckled in car seats, heading home.
CHRISTINE VAUGHN: Wait a minute. Why is there a piggy on our bus?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Because it has to go to school.
BALONON-ROSEN: For NPR News, I'm Peter Balonon-Rosen.
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