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Bridges to Success in High School for Migrant Youth

by Margaret A. Gibson & Nicole Hidalgo - 2009

Background/Context: Among the children of immigrants, one of the populations placed at greatest risk of not finishing high school are the children of migrant farmworkers. Although it is difficult to track graduation rates for migrant students because of their mobility, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that only half of all migrant children finish high school. These children face many of the same obstacles as children of immigrants whose families must cope with severe economic hardships, but they also must deal with additional challenges associated with their families’ migratory lifestyles and living situations.

Purpose: This article offers some background on the barriers that migrant youth face in school; describes the services provided to these young people by the federally funded Migrant Education Program, focusing on the authors’ research on the role of migrant education resource teachers; and discusses the implications of study findings and related research for improving educational opportunities for low-income children of immigrants.

Research Design: Findings are drawn from 4 years of ethnographic research in one Northern California high school, where 80% of the Mexican-descent migrant students in the Class of 2002 completed 12th grade, and from a set of comparative interviews carried out with migrant education resource teachers in four additional high schools. The analysis centers on the nature of the relationships that develop between migrant students and migrant teachers, including the teachers’ multiple roles as mentors, counselors, advocates, and role models, and on the kinds of support provided to students that help them navigate successfully through high school.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Study findings suggest that the migrant students’ school persistence and academic success were due at least in part to the supplemental services they received from the Migrant Education Program and, in particular, to the support provided to them by the migrant resource teachers. A key to the teachers’ effectiveness was the holistic nature of their relationships with students and their ability to connect students with the resources and networks needed for school success. In addition, the migrant teachers’ own identities as academically successful Mexican Americans, many of them the children of migrant farmworkers themselves, increased their ability to serve as role models and to help students build bridges between their multiple worlds. Findings support many of those reported in the literature on successful college outreach programs. Unlike these programs, the Migrant Education Program is not selective; it serves all eligible students.

Sometimes you’re a teacher, sometimes you’re a counselor, sometimes you’re a social worker, sometimes you’re a health consultant. It’s so rewarding and the beauty of this job. — Migrant education resource teacher

They are like the symbol that you can do it, too. When I see them, I think: “They did it. Why can’t I do it?” — Migrant student

Among the children of immigrants, one of the populations placed at greatest risk of not finishing high school are the children of migrant farmworkers. Although it is difficult to track graduation rates for migrant students because of their mobility, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Migrant Education estimates that only half of all migrant children living in the United States finish high school.1 These children face many of the same obstacles as children of immigrants whose families must cope with severe economic hardships, but they also must deal with additional challenges associated with their families’ migratory lifestyles and living situations.

Since 1966, the federal government has provided supplemental educational services to migrant children through the Migrant Education Program (MEP) to help ensure that these children have an opportunity to graduate from high school and to meet the same academic achievement standards as other children. Prior to the launching of the MEP, many migrant children never enrolled in school at all, and less than half may even have reached second grade (Branz-Spall & Rosenthal, 2003; Johnson, Levy, Morales, Morse, & Prokopp, 1986). Today, conditions for migrant children have improved significantly, and most remain in school at least until ninth or tenth grade. Still, many fall behind academically along the way, placing them at risk of dropping out of high school or of graduating without adequate academic preparation to attend college.

To be eligible for MEP services, a child must have moved into a new school district within the past 36 months to obtain temporary or seasonal work in agriculture or fishing or to accompany family members seeking such work. Each migratory move can initiate a new 3-year period of eligibility.2 Children are eligible for services until they turn 22 or graduate from high school. As a consequence of multiple moves, including movement back and forth between their home country and the United States, some children remain eligible for MEP services throughout their entire school career, preschool though 12th grade, whereas others who have ceased to migrate may be eligible for only one 3-year period. Nationwide, more than 850,000 children receive MEP services.3

This article has three purposes: first, to provide some background on the educational challenges faced by migrant children and the types of support that the MEP provides to these children and their families; second, to present findings from the authors’ ongoing research in five California high schools on the roles played by migrant education resource teachers; and third, to discuss the implications of our study’s findings and related research for improving educational opportunities for migrant youth and other children of immigrants.


The large majority (87%) of all migrant children in the United States are Latino/a, and most of these are children of Mexican descent whose parents have jobs as agricultural workers. In the “classic” migratory pattern, children accompany their families as they follow the crops from one state to another throughout the agricultural season, returning to their home base in late fall (Branz-Spall & Rosenthal, 2003). The educational disruptions that result from repeated moves impede migrant children’s chances for school success. With each school move, students may be confronted with a new curriculum, different instructional methods, and, for high school students, quite possibly different graduation requirements. School moves during the academic year often lead to missed days from school, and when children switch schools, they run the risk of not having their cumulative records forwarded in a timely and accurate manner. This increases the likelihood that students will not receive full credit for work already completed and not be placed in the appropriate classes in the new school. Further, as has been shown in a number of recent studies, highly mobile children often experience social isolation when they switch schools, which can adversely affect their attendance, school engagement, academic achievement, and, ultimately, decisions about whether to continue in school (Ream, 2005; Rumberger, 2003; Rumberger & Larson, 1998; Walls, 2003).

Not all migrant families follow the crops seasonally. In areas where there is a long agricultural season and available work for most of the year, families settle semipermanently, but they may still migrate in the weeks and months when they are out of work, especially if they can live more cheaply elsewhere. As a result, children may experience breaks in their schooling lasting from a few days to several months. Typically, these absences occur in December and January, when families return to Mexico to save on living expenses and to reunite with relatives still living there. Because the drive itself may take several days each way, families usually go for at least 3 weeks, often longer, causing a break in schooling for their children. These periods of absence can prove difficult academically because students miss not only valuable instructional time but often one or more end-of-semester examinations as well. High school students who return after the second semester has begun may find themselves placed in classes based on space available rather than according to their academic needs and abilities. Moreover, some schools do not permit migrant students to make up missed exams, resulting in failed classes and lowered GPAs.

Beyond mobility, migrant children frequently face other serious challenges that impact their educational progress. Many have experienced serious gaps in their academic preparation either because of periods of absence from school or because of inadequate schooling in Mexico or the United States. Most also must live with the burden of poverty or near poverty. The average wage for migrant workers nationwide is $7.25 an hour, and few have steady work throughout the year.4 More than 70% of farmworker families earn less than $20,000 annually (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).5 In addition, agricultural workers frequently must travel long distances to their job sites, requiring them to leave home early and return late, especially during the height of the growing season. The backbreaking nature of their work often leaves farm laborers exhausted, and many suffer from health problems and work-related injuries. To make ends meet, many migrant families count on support from their children. It is common for migrant children to carry heavy responsibilities at home, particularly the girls. Older children may hold after-school jobs to provide for their own necessities and to contribute to the household income, which cuts into the time they have available for their studies. Recognizing their family’s need for financial assistance, some migrant youth leave school early, prior to graduation, to work full time. Others become discouraged when they fall behind in credits and drop out or get pushed out of the system. Still others attend school only intermittently or not at all. For those whose parents lack authorization to work in the United States, there is the added worry that their parents, and they themselves if they were not born in the United States, can be deported.6   

Like most immigrant parents with low-wage employment and few job prospects, migrant farmworkers view schooling as the avenue to a better life for their children. They encourage their children to do well in school. However, given their work schedules, their physical exhaustion when they return home, and their own limited years of formal education, most migrant parents are unable to provide direct assistance to their children with homework, especially in the upper grades. Nationwide, only half of all migrant workers have completed elementary school; among those born in Mexico, only 6% are high school graduates. Most speak little English, and Spanish is the primary language spoken at home (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005). As a result, most migrant parents are unable to communicate easily with their children’s teachers unless the teachers can speak Spanish.

All these factors together increase the risk that migrant children will fall behind in school. Yet many migrant students show tremendous resiliency. With the encouragement of their families and with the services provided by the MEP, many migrant students overcome the challenges they face and succeed in school. MEP services include academic support, summer school, medical and dental assistance, drug and gang intervention and prevention, outside work experience for older youth, summer leadership programs, and the tracking of student records and performance. At the elementary level, the development of literacy skills is a major focus. At the high school level, the MEP emphasizes academic guidance and counseling. Migrant staff members work closely with parents to help them feel connected to their children’s schools and the work that they are doing.

Close to one third of all migrant children live in California.7 Although concentrated in areas of the state with the highest levels of crop production, migrant children can be found in more than half of California’s 1,059 school districts. Migrant services are coordinated through regional offices located throughout the state. The research findings that we report here are drawn from ongoing research in two of these regions, both located along California’s Central Coast. We focus on the role of migrant education resource teachers at the high school level.


For over 30 years, social scientists have posited that the achievement gaps between rich and poor students are related not only to economic differences but also to differences in access to the resources needed for school success (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Coleman, 1988; Dika & Singh, 2002; Lareau, 1987; Stanton-Salazar, 2001). Students whose parents are wealthy and who are college educated have greater access to the kinds of social relationships that aid academic success than do children raised in less affluent surroundings. Children raised in poverty tend not to be embedded within the same kinds of support networks as their middle-class peers, and they often encounter difficulties in constructing the sorts of “authentically supportive relations in school” that facilitate academic progress (Stanton-Salazar, p. 4). In fact, many low-income youth feel isolated and socially distanced from adults in school.  As Stanton-Salazar and Spina (2003) noted in their discussion of mentors and role models, even when these young people do have frequent positive and close interactions with teachers and other adults at schools, these rarely develop into mentoring relationships that facilitate school success. For low-income youth to develop strong, supportive relationships with school staff, schools themselves need to explicitly foster such connections.

We draw from the literature on social networks and schooling to frame our discussion, focusing in particular on how school personnel can provide low-income youth of color with access to the kinds of relationships and resources at school that facilitate academic success. We also frame our discussion in the literature that identifies authentic caring, or cariño, as a precondition for students to feel trust and belonging within the school environment and to establish beneficial school-based relationships (Duncan-Andrade, 2006; Noddings, 1992; Valenzuela, 1999). Scholars who have examined caring in an educational context contend that it is at the heart of successful teacher–student relationships and that it can make “the difference between positive school experiences and frustration or alienation” (Chaskin & Rauner, 1995, pp. 667–668).

As prior research has shown, educational programs can be structured in ways that provide children from economically marginalized communities with access to institutional agents who can make a critical difference in their school trajectories (McLaughlin, Irby, & Langman, 1994; Mehan, Villanueva, Hubbard, & Lintz, 1996; Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch, 1995; Stanton-Salazar, Vásquez, & Mehan, 2000). Following Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch, we refer to institutional agents as “those individuals who have the capacity and commitment to transmit directly or to negotiate the transmission of institutional resources and opportunities” (p. 117). These scholars argued that “supportive ties with institutional agents represent a necessary condition for engagement and advancement in the educational system and, ultimately, for success in the occupational structure” (p. 117). Developing caring relationships with institutional agents is crucial for students, particularly for low-income students of color, who depend on adults at school to provide the necessary resources and information to succeed in school.


The analysis that follows draws from two separate research projects, one that involved long-term ethnographic research in a school we call Hillside High School (HHS), and the other a smaller study focused specifically on the role of migrant education resource teachers at four additional high schools.8 The HHS study centered on all 160 migrant students in the Class of 2002, whose academic performance and school engagement patterns we tracked over a 4-year period (Gibson, Bejínez, Hidalgo, & Rolón, 2004).9 HHS is a large suburban public high school located in the hills overlooking the California coast. It draws students from two distinct communities, Hillside and Appleton, and its patterns of academic achievement may be described as “bimodal,” dividing as they do along the racial and social class lines reflected in these two communities (Gibson & Bejínez, 2002). In using the term bimodal, we also seek to reflect the nature of the school itself and the ways in which it contributes to the bimodal patterns of achievement. Bimodal high schools have been described as institutions that have two schools under the same roof (Wing, 2006). Such schools are all too common. Large numbers of African American, Asian American, and Latino children attend schools like HHS, “where resources are relatively abundant and schools are reputedly excellent” but where bimodal patterns of achievement persist (Ferguson, 2002).

The town of Hillside is a predominantly White middle- to upper-middle-class professional community where the median family income in 2000 was $73,515 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002a). Appleton is a mostly Mexican and Mexican American working-class agricultural town where the median income for families of Mexican descent in 2000 was about $33,000.10 For the majority of migrant families living in the area, total family income was far lower. When our study began in the fall of 1998, the ninth grade at HHS was nearly equally divided between non-Hispanic White students, mostly from Hillside, and students of Mexican descent, mostly from Appleton, two thirds of whom were migrant students. Appleton students were bussed to HHS because of severe overcrowding at their local high school.

Our sample resembles the national statistics for migrant workers. All the parents in our study were born in Mexico, as were 45% of the students. Spanish was universally the language spoken at home, and most of the parents had little proficiency in English. Most also had little opportunity to attend more than a few years of school in Mexico. Three quarters of the parents had attended school for 8 years or less; just 4% had finished high school.

Only a small number of families in our sample followed the crops seasonally, but many left the area for a period in the winter when they were out of work. Those who could manage the trip traveled back to Mexico. As a result, migrant students at HHS often missed some days of school in December, usually during exam week, or in January, at the start of the second semester. Those who lived in a migrant labor camp—seasonal housing provided to migrant workers and their families—were the most impacted, because the camps located near Appleton closed in late October and did not reopen until late April. Some of these families returned to Mexico during this period; others found winter employment in Southern California.

Most of the migrant students who attended HHS believed that it was a good high school and that their teachers encouraged them to do well. However, it became apparent from our interviews and observations that many of the migrant students experienced a sense of marginalization and silencing in various spaces on campus, both academic and social, which limited their full participation in the life of the school (Gibson & Bejínez, 2002; Koyama & Gibson, 2007). Those enrolled in advanced college preparatory classes, which typically had only a few students of Mexican descent, often felt very alone. The themes of being “quieter,” “more reserved,” and reluctant to speak up and participate actively permeated our interviews with the college-bound migrant students; those in less challenging classes described similar experiences of discomfort.

The large majority of migrant students faced serious academic challenges. Only half were placed into college preparatory math and English upon entering ninth grade. The other half, mainly students with limited proficiency in academic English, were placed in English language development (ELD) or sheltered English classes. By the end of ninth grade, just 5% of the migrant students, compared with 42% of the White students, had a GPA above 3.4, and 39% of the migrant students had a cumulative GPA below 1.8, meaning that they had failed or nearly failed one or more of their classes. One fourth of the migrant students finished ninth grade seriously behind in course credits.

In spite of these grim statistics, 80% of the migrant students who began ninth grade at HHS in fall 1998 graduated from high school.11 Perhaps even more remarkable, 47% of those migrant students with a ninth-grade GPA of 1.8 or lower graduated from HHS, compared with just 11% of the nonmigrant students of Mexican origin, and 13% of the White students with similarly low GPAs. Of those migrant students who finished at HHS, 17% had gained admission into a 4-year college; two thirds of the rest reported, at the time of their high school graduation, that they planned to attend community college. Our findings suggest that these students’ academic persistence and success were due at least in part to the supplemental services they received from the MEP, and, in particular, to the support provided to them by migrant teachers working at HHS (Gibson & Bejínez, 2002; Gibson, 2005; Gibson et al., 2004).

Interested to know whether our findings were specific to this one high school or more generalizable, we carried out a set of comparative interviews with migrant teachers in four additional high schools during the 2004–2005 school year, and we returned to HHS to interview the migrant teachers there, both of whom were new to the site.12 Two of the new schools were similar to HHS in their demographics and in their bimodal achievement patterns. The other two had predominantly Latino student populations. One of these was Appleton High, where 5 migrant teachers provided services to over 1,400 migrant students. HHS, by contrast, had a far more generous teacher-to-student ratio, with 2 migrant resource teachers assigned to 350 migrant students at the time of our initial research there. The other three high schools were located in a different migrant education region and represented two separate school districts, one rural and the other urban (see Table 1). Migrant teachers in these schools served from 350 to 450 students each, again a much higher teacher-to-student ratio than at Hillside High.

Table 1. School Demographics for 2003–2004


Total Students

Graduates 2003–2004

% Grads UC/CSU Eligible

Migrant Students

Migrant Education Teachers

% Non-Hispanic White Students

% Latino Students


English Learners

% Fluent English Proficient

% Free or Reduced Lunch























School C











School D











School E











Sources: Migrant student totals come from interviews with the migrant teachers at each school and are for 2004–2005. Other data come from California Department of Education, Educational Demographics Unit (see http://data1.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/page2.asp?Level=School&submit1=Submit&Subject=Profile).

In the discussion that follows, we draw from interviews with 13 migrant teachers, several of whom we interviewed on multiple occasions over the years of our research.13 All 13 were college graduates, and most held a California teaching credential, which in California requires a year of postbaccalaureate professional preparation. The others held master’s degrees in counseling. Our primary purpose is to explore the role of migrant high school teachers in their work with migrant students.


As suggested by the opening quote, migrant education teachers wear many hats, and the terms they use to describe themselves reflect this complexity. These include resource teacher, support teacher, counselor, advisor, advocate, mentor, role model, agent, broker, surrogate parent, and friend. Migrant teachers typically perform a bridging role, most notably between home and school, but also as a link to classroom teachers and other school staff, to community resources, to outside work experiences, to other students (who themselves can become a support group), and to college and the adult world. Although most frequently referred to as teachers based on their prior training and credentials, their roles differ from those normally associated with classroom teachers. As one migrant teacher explained to us, “You are mostly like an advisor, I’d say, not a counselor, not a teacher. You’re an advisor for students. You are providing guidance to students in many areas. Not only academics, but life, and sometimes friendship.”

Following this woman’s lead, we refer to migrant teachers and migrant counselors as advisors, so as not to confuse their roles with those of regular classroom teachers or guidance counselors employed at each school. The chain of command for migrant advisors differs from that of classroom teachers and counselors, because they report to the director of migrant education in their region rather than to the high school principal.

The advisors’ formal charge is to provide supplemental services to migrant students, and their highest priority must be those students who have missed school because of their migrant lifestyle and who are behind academically. Advisors make individual contact with each migrant student at least several times during his or her high school career, first to make sure that the student has a 4-year academic plan, and then to monitor the student’s progress toward graduation. Contact with many of the students is far more frequent and involves a range of activities designed to support students’ social, emotional, and academic development. For example, advisors do credit checks after each grading period to monitor student progress. If students are failing a class or clearly falling behind, the advisors call them in for an appointment and then set up a plan to get them back on track for graduation. Students most at risk academically are often those hardest to reach, in part because they have become discouraged about school and have little faith in their ability to succeed or in the system’s ability to support them. As one advisor explained, “Those are the ones that we go everywhere to pick up . . . [W]e are constantly looking for them.” To be effective with these students, advisors noted that they first need to gain students’ trust and respect, and they seek to do this by showing the students that they understand where they are coming from, care about them as individuals, and can actually help them deal with the challenges they are encountering in school and in their lives outside of school.

The migrant advisors provide assistance in numerous other ways. They offer after-school tutoring to students who need help with a particular class. For those who need to make up credits, they administer the Portable Assisted Study Sequence (PASS) program. Developed to help prevent migrant students from dropping out of secondary school, the program consists of a collection of sequential curriculum units (organized in booklets) that students pursue through independent study after school, at home, or as they travel with their family. The courses have been approved by the state and count toward students’ graduation credits. Advisors also teach in summer programs run by the MEP, designed to help students make up missing credits, repeat a failed class, or take an extra class needed to stay on track for college.

Because school authorities are often unsympathetic to migrant students’ need to miss school, migrant advisors play an intermediary role. They work with the student and the classroom teachers to develop an academic plan for the time a student will be absent, and they intervene with classroom teachers to arrange for exams to be taken early or for work to be done independently. Without the advisors’ support and advocacy, migrant students sometimes prefer just to slip away without notice when their family must relocate. When this happens, the school may drop the student from its books, making reentry even more difficult. One advisor explained,

I think that students feel safe enough with the migrant staff to tell them, “This is what I’m going to do. Can you please help me with these teachers?” And therefore, the migrant teachers communicate with the base teachers, and then the teachers at least have a better understanding. . . . So having the advocacy there, it spreads not just in that one room, but throughout the campus, . . . students know that they are not alone and that there is support for them. . . . More and more I’ve noticed that students will come and [tell us], “We’re leaving.”

When students move between schools, advisors pay close attention to their transcripts to make sure that credits for previous coursework are officially and properly transferred. They also intercede on behalf of students when they are not placed in the appropriate class, which unfortunately happens far too frequently and can jeopardize a student’s opportunity to be on track for college or even high school graduation.

Advisors highlight the importance of developing close relationships with the students, getting to know them well, becoming friends with them, and spending enough time with them to understand the issues they are facing, whether school related or not. They emphasized that their door was always open. They went out of their way to support students in their personal lives, as well as in their school lives. In fact, they made no division between the two. Standard appointments with students lasted 15 minutes, but advisors explained that if a student had a serious problem that needed immediate attention, they would extend the meeting. In addition, students knew that they could drop in without an appointment and wait their turn.

To the degree possible, advisors created a comfortable gathering spot for the migrant students, although this was dependent on the nature of the space allocated to the migrant program at each school site. In some sites, the migrant program had its own classroom, in others, some space was shared with other programs, and in still others, the migrant advisors simply had their individual offices with no larger space for migrant students to gather or activities to take place. In one school, the MEP occupied space that had previously been a greenhouse; at another, the office was in a former home economics classroom. At HHS, the MEP had its office in a large converted classroom divided into cubicles for the advisors and an open space with large tables and computer stations where the students could work. As we have described more fully elsewhere (Gibson, 2005), the office at HHS became a kind of refuge for the students in an otherwise sometimes hostile environment, a space where it was safe to share emotions and problems, and a place where students knew someone would listen to them. It was the hub of migrant student activity on campus as well. Students dropped in to the office to work on homework or group projects, plan school activities, and simply hang out with friends. It was a place where they felt free to be themselves and part of a caring community of their peers. Having a space where students could congregate appeared to be vital to the program’s effectiveness. This may be particularly important in school sites where migrant students feel isolated or marginalized, as was the case at HHS (Gibson & Bejínez, 2002; Gibson et al., 2004). At Appleton High, by contrast, the five advisors simply had their individual offices, which were spread out in various parts of the campus, as well as an office where students went to do make-up work. There was no common space where migrant students could gather on an informal basis. For scheduled activities, the advisors reserved the library or some other spot on campus.


Migrant students often have no family members who have graduated from high school or attended college. For these students, the advisors serve as role models, persons who come from similar backgrounds and have themselves successfully navigated the U.S. school system. As one advisor explained, “We are like the uncle who got the education.” Others also referred to the metaphor of a family member and described their efforts to create a family-like atmosphere. Big brother, father figure, aunt, and comadre (godmother) were all terms that advisors used to describe their roles. They consciously tried to get to know students outside of the formal relationship of classroom teacher or school counselor and to serve as role models to the students not only in matters academic but in their daily lives as well.

Nine of the 13 advisors we interviewed had themselves been raised in migrant families, and 2 others were of Mexican origin. All 13 spoke Spanish fluently, 11 as native speakers.14 Several had family members who still worked as farm laborers. The MEP makes a point of hiring staff members who understand from their own personal experiences how important it is to have adult role models at school who can push a child to succeed academically and who understand the specific challenges that migrant students face. The MEP also makes a concerted effort to hire staff members who share a similar cultural and linguistic background with the migrant students.

Several of the advisors emphasized that they could relate easily to the students’ needs because they had been in the same spot. “I keep telling people,” one man explained, that “I was there, and somebody took the time to push me.” He viewed this as the advisor’s role—to push and challenge students and not accept any excuses. He noted, moreover, that his own background as the child of migrant farmworkers helped him form a bond with the students:

We live in the same neighborhood. We eat what they eat. We listen to what they listen to, and it’s just, [he paused] kids just feel that . . . they know that we didn’t eat from a silver spoon or silver plate, and they know that this is what they can do. That it’s not impossible. “We did it. I mean, you guys can, and we’re here to let you know that you guys will be able to do it.”

Another advisor gave as an example the migrant students’ need to be absent for 3 or 4 weeks in December and January when their families traveled to Mexico. She understood this, she said, based on her own family experience but noted how other school personnel were often unsupportive.

This same advisor pointed out that although she was always ready to help students develop a plan for their periods of absence, she would never accept their absence as an excuse for not succeeding in school. A third advisor said much the same: “When kids come in and tell me, ‘Oh no, I can’t do it because of this and because of that,’ I go, ‘I’m the last person you can tell that to because I know. I’ve been there. And if I did it, you can do it.’”

A fourth advisor commented specifically on how he himself would not have finished high school, much less continued on to college, had he not had support from the migrant program.  This man emphasized that the advisors’ success in working with the migrant students rested on their relationships with them:

I think that’s the key factor in getting kids to buy into what you want them to do here [at school], what your role is here. That’s one thing that I don’t take for granted. For them to trust you, to want to come into the office and know that they’re going to get help here, feel comfortable and feel valued and supported.

Yet another expressed her view that if the MEP was successful, it was due to “a lot of dedication and caring by all the people involved with it and the fact that mostly these students are given a lot of attention.” The close, caring relationships that advisors develop with students enable them to be more effective in their multiple roles—for example, as tutors, advocates, mentors, and even disciplinarians.


From our interviews with students, it became clear that the nature of the attention they received from the advisors and the actual relationships they developed with advisors was of enormous importance to them.15 They valued having the advisors as their role models, mentors, and friends. They recognized that the advisors understood where they were coming from and motivated them to succeed. Students commented specifically that they could relate to the advisors because they came from a similar background and had faced similar problems when they were growing up. As one student explained,

[T]hey’ve been in the spot, they’ve been in the same place you are. They did not have a lot of money when they grew up. They were [the children of] migrant workers. They are like the symbol that you can do it too. When I see them, I think, “They did it, why can’t I do it?”

Another student noted, “You can relate more to them [migrant advisors] because of the same race and all. If they weren’t the same race, you would have a lot more trouble trying to talk to them.” A third student pointed out that whenever she needed to talk to someone, she would go to a migrant advisor because she felt so “comfortable with them.” They “would always help me a lot and give me advice,” she explained. She also observed, “You can tell right away when a person cares for you.”

Many others commented on how the advisors looked out for them, helped to motivate them, and pushed them to succeed. One young woman remarked that a migrant teacher was the first teacher who had faith in her: “She was dedicated to me, not just to me, to all her students.” Migrant advisors, she explained, “are always caring about migrant students getting all their credits and graduating and passing their proficiency tests,” and in her view, that was a “really good thing for us.” Another observed that migrant staff never say, “‘No, I don’t have time for you,’ or turn their back.” Yet another commented, “Even if it is the smallest little thing, they are there and they are there to motivate you.”

These students, and many others, explained to us (and our observations confirmed) how the advisors would let students see what their choices were, painting a picture for them, and helping them to visualize their options: “Would you rather be living in a one-room house or a four-bedroom house? This is how you have to get it.” Or, “Do you want a brand new car or a college career? What do you prefer, something that’s going to last you all your life or something that’s going to last 5 years?” Many migrant students think college is beyond their reach or not for them because they do not know anyone who has been to college. They may say they want to go to college, but they do not really believe they will, and they do not know the steps they must take to achieve this goal. Advisors help students see the possibilities and see that college is in fact attainable. As one advisor put it, we “plant the seeds.” Clearly, too, they help the seeds to grow.


Contrary to popular assumptions, most Mexican immigrant parents place great value on schooling and want their children not only to finish high school but also to continue on to college (Goldenberg, Gallimore, Reese, & Garnier, 2001). In our interviews with migrant parents, we found a similar and consistent pattern. Parents viewed schooling as the ticket to a better life. They themselves felt stuck in their jobs, and they wanted something better for their children. This is illustrated in comments made by the mother of one of the migrant students in our sample:16

I’m sad that her grades are low now, because I wish for [she paused], since I have had to work in the fields I don’t want her to have to settle for the same. That’s why I always tell them [her children] to study and to do well in school. So that they can get a different job than mine . . . I tell them to better themselves and to try to secure a career for themselves, working in an office so that they could at least avoid working in the fields. . . . I want her to study so she can have a career, a small one, so she won’t work like us. . . . I will support her. Before, I never used to wash her clothes, because it was all she did [around the house], or she would pick up the kitchen because I worked long hours. I’d work in the field from 7 a.m. and I wouldn’t get home until 7 p.m. Now I help her . . . so that she can do her schoolwork. I try to help her.

Other migrant parents specifically noted that a high school diploma alone was not enough and expressed the hope that their children would go to college.

Mexican immigrant parents play a decisive role in their children’s future though their encouragement and support, but, as noted by Stanton-Salazar and Spina (2003), they are often unable to serve as academic role models or “agents” in their children’s school achievement because of their own limited years of formal education and their lack of familiarity with, and access to, the U.S. educational system. For example, most of the parents we interviewed had little knowledge of the specific courses required for graduation or the steps involved in gaining college admission. The migrant program seeks to bridge this gap, and advisors emphasize the importance of working jointly with the parents. One advisor described his role as helping the two worlds of home and school to meet, while always keeping in the forefront the best interests of the child. Another described herself as “the student’s agent.” To be effective in this role requires working with both the school officials and the parents to set up a program that works for the child. Advisors reach parents by phone, hold parent conferences at school, and facilitate meetings between parents and school staff. They explain to parents the importance of not taking their children out of school during the winter months if it can be avoided. They may even facilitate finding alternative living arrangements for an older child whose parents must migrate so that the child won’t fall behind in college preparatory classes.

Ironically, if parents find a way to leave their child in school while they themselves return to Mexico, the child ultimately loses eligibility for migrant services. This paradox is not lost on the parents, as is clear from the following comments made during a parent interview:

FATHER:  Well, the migrant program . . . how can I say this, it’s bad and good things. Bad in the sense that if I don’t take my daughter to Mexico, she no longer is “migrant.” . . . If my daughter doesn’t go to Mexico, then they’re not going to be able to help her. Because my daughter doesn’t go, she’s not a migrant? This is bad!

MOTHER: Now, if the Latino students are not in [the] migrant [program], they don’t get help. These kids are the ones that fall through the cracks because they’re not intelligent [meaning they’re not in the gifted program], and since they don’t go to Mexico, they’re not migrants. So, what the school can do is to acquire counselors for the students who are not in either program [either gifted or migrant].

Other parents also noted that Mexican-descent children who were not part of the migrant program missed out on the services that they needed. In their view, the type of services provided by the MEP should be offered to all children who need the assistance, and not just those who miss school.

As part of their regular duties, MEP advisors run monthly migrant parent meetings at each school site, often bringing in outside community speakers. Topics range from high school graduation requirements and the college application process to gang prevention and drug awareness programs. Advisors use the monthly meetings to inform parents about the community resources that are available to them and their children. They discuss the kinds of support that the children need at home to be successful in their studies, and they work with the parents and students to establish clear academic goals and help parents to understand the amount of homework required, particularly for those students enrolled in the tougher college preparatory and advanced placement classes. Additionally, either at these monthly meetings or in individual parent conferences, the advisors review each student’s individual academic plan, inform parents about what they have a right to expect from the school, and help parents learn to ask the “right” questions when they have meetings with teachers and other school personnel. One advisor, herself the child of migrant farmworkers, noted that when she was a child, no migrant parent program was available. If there had been one, she said, it could have made a big difference for her family. She explained,

I come from a family of 12 children and two parents. There was a high level of poverty and lack of education on behalf of my parents, and they really didn’t understand the [education] system and never advocated on our behalf. And now that I work with these parents, I teach and train parents how to advocate for their children. And that’s the beauty of it.  

Because the advisors speak Spanish and in many cases share a cultural background with the parents, the parents generally feel very comfortable interacting with them. This is not always the case with other school personnel. As a result, when migrant parents need to contact someone at the school, they often will call the migrant education office even when their business is not a migrant matter. “We’re like the bridge,” one advisor noted. “We connect the school with the community.” Through her work with parents, she explained, “you get to network and you get to advocate and sometimes you get to be political.”


According to policies set forth by the MEP, migrant advisors must give priority to those students who are behind academically. Advisors spoke often about how personally rewarded they felt when students at risk of dropping out of high school in fact graduated. “That’s the overarching goal,” one explained. At the same time, advisors emphasized in their interviews with us that they wanted students to have a plan for after high school and, whenever possible, that this plan should include college.

Advisors counsel students on the classes they need for college admission, and they challenge those students who need to be challenged to take the tougher classes. They monitor students’ term progress and help them to stay on a path to college. As one advisor explained, recalling his own experiences in high school, “It just takes one teacher to push the student and to challenge the student . . . [to say] ‘Just give it a shot, and if you don’t like it, then you can come back’ [drop back to a less difficult class].” Another advisor recalled how a migrant teacher was the first person who ever told him about college, explaining, “He pushed me. He played a big role in me just graduating, because I wasn’t going to graduate either.”  

Advisors provide students with information on the college application process, on admissions requirements at different colleges, and on financial aid. They organize field trips to colleges, and they help students make the best decisions they can about what to do to prepare for the future. They also serve as faculty advisors to the Migrant Student Association (MSA), whose mission is to “promote higher education, celebrate cultural differences, participate in school activities, and organize community service activities.” As we have discussed elsewhere, students respond positively to these goals and to the club’s supportive environment (Gibson, 2005; Gibson et al., 2004). Through their participation in the MSA, students network with one another and with the advisors to share and acquire information about school- and community-related activities, as well as the college admissions process. With the leadership and support of the migrant advisors, students become socialized into a community culture that values information sharing, networking, and peer support. In such a fashion, club members become resources for one another, consciously and actively helping each other achieve academic goals.

At HHS, we found that the advisors worked consciously and deliberately to use the MSA to build relationships between advisors and students and among the students themselves. Advisors believed that by developing close relationships with the students based on trust, respect, and care or cariño, the students themselves would be able to put aside any differences, which often were substantial, to work together to create a strong community and to support one another in being successful in school. As one HHS advisor observed, the migrant club “becomes like a family [once students] see that we really care and we want to help.” It was a space where home, school, peer, and community worlds all met and could be mutually supportive. It should be noted, however, that the sense of belonging, trust, and mutual support that existed within the MSA did not just happen by chance; it was actively created by the advisors and the students working together (Gibson et al., 2004).

Migrant advisors emphasized that to build trust with the students, they must first become their friends. One man explained,

I think in order for me to trust you, I need to feel that you’re my friend. There’s no way I’m going to share things with you or believe what you tell me if I don’t see you as a friend. It’s something we really try to do with all our students.

This same advisor stressed the importance of building relationships with students that extended beyond the formal classroom or school setting, and getting to know migrant youth outside of their roles as students. He explained how he played sports with the students on weekends and involved himself in other aspects of their lives through his community activities. It was important, he said, to be a part of the community in which his students lived. Other advisors described similar links to students’ lives outside of school.


As shown in previous research, children from low-income backgrounds, including many children of immigrants, often find it difficult to access resources in school because of their lack of “connectedness” with key institutional agents—that is, adults in school settings who have “both the capacity and commitment to either directly provide or negotiate the provision of institutional resources, support and opportunities” (Stanton-Salazar et al., 2000, p. 215). Migrant Education Program advisors do just this. They provide migrant youth with access to the social networks and institutional resources needed for school success. We have highlighted the multifaceted nature of the advisors’ roles, describing how they serve the students as mentors, advocates, teachers, counselors, and friends.

The advisors establish relationships with students that are informed by their own lived experiences and their understandings of the students’ hopes and needs. A key to their effectiveness may be the holistic nature of these relationships. Advisors provide social and emotional support, as well as academic support, and their work with students extends beyond classroom walls into the students’ worlds outside of school. They seek to understand the lives of the migrant students in all their complexities, and the relationships they develop with students are grounded in a sense of mutual trust, care, and respect. Previous social science research has found each of these factors to be a precondition to marginalized and low-status students accepting and reaching out for support and guidance in school settings (Erickson, 1987; Noddings, 1992; Oakes, Quartz, Ryan, & Lipton, 2000; Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2003; Stanton-Salazar et al., 2000; Valenzuela, 1999). The advisors’ effectiveness is enhanced as well by their ability to construct spaces where students can draw together their home, school, peer, and community worlds. In essence, the advisors create spaces of belonging within a larger institutional context in which migrant students all too frequently experience alienation and marginalization. The importance of a sense of belonging to success in school is clearly supported in the education literature (Goodenow, 1993; Osterman, 2000; Osterman & Freese, 2000; Solomon, Battistich, Kim, & Watson, 1997). This body of work points to a strong and positive link between students’ sense of relatedness and belonging on the one hand, and their academic motivation, participation, and achievement on the other.

Our study findings also lend support to the conclusions from research on best practices found in intervention programs designed to improve the college-going rates of students from populations currently underrepresented in higher education. Gándara’s (2001) review of effective early intervention programs emphasizes the importance of building on the cultural backgrounds of the students and of mentors becoming friends to the students, both of which we have identified as characteristics of the MEP. Furthermore, like the social capital literature and the literature on building community and spaces of belonging, the early intervention studies show that developing close relationships with a key adult or agent “who monitors and guides the student over a long period of time” can prove pivotal to success in school for low-income youth of color (Gándara, 2001, p. viii).

A question can be raised as to whether it is important for those who serve as institutional agents, including the MEP advisors in our study, to have a shared cultural and linguistic background with the students. This clearly is an area where further research is needed, as Gándara and Mejorado (2005) have noted in their discussion of the kinds of relationships needed to effectively mentor “at-risk” youth. We may ask, then, does it make a difference when the migrant advisors are from a similar background as their students? First and foremost, what stands out as most important is having an individual who can develop a caring relationship with the students, who understands where the students are coming from and the challenges they face, who speaks the home language of the students (which in the present case means Spanish), and who can either directly provide, or connect students with, the resources they need. That said, in schools where the overwhelming majority of teachers are White and middle class and where teachers have little knowledge about the lives of migrant families, the advisors’ effectiveness in working with the migrant students is clearly enhanced when they have a shared background. Advisors were able to serve as role models at least in part because students knew that advisors had overcome similar obstacles in their lives and had been successful in school. They were, as the students explained, “the symbol that they could do it too.” Because of their own experiences, those advisors who themselves had grown up in migrant families were keenly aware of the particular kinds of issues that confronted migrant students; this in turn improved their ability to form empathetic and trusting relationships with the students and to offer them genuine social support, both of which are elements that Stanton-Salazar and Spina (2003) have identified as critical to the role of mentors. As these scholars noted, “Mere exposure and casual contact are insufficient” (p. 247).

The advisors were also very mindful of how anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant, and anti-Spanish-language discourses could infiltrate the developing identities and self-conceptualizations of the migrant students in part because of their own lived experiences; advisors worked with the students to contest these images by developing counternarratives or discourses of Mexican students as leaders, as academically able, and as college bound (Gibson & Bejínez, 2002). Advisors’ own identities as Mexican Americans increased their ability to help students build bridges between their multiple worlds, guiding them to remain anchored in their Mexican communities while simultaneously developing the kinds of bicultural networks needed for success in school.

The ethnographic literature lends support to the conclusion that academically successful immigrant youth are aided in navigating across cultural borders by an additive view of acculturation (Gibson, 1988, 1997). Those who learn how to become skillful border crossers and navigators have an advantage in school both socially and academically. The question, then, is how to help students acquire these skills and dispositions. Students need role models, such as the MEP advisors, who can demonstrate through their own lives how to draw strength from both dominant and nondominant forms of cultural capital and how to move competently and comfortably within multiple cultural worlds without compromising their identity (Carter, 2005). Such individuals, as Carter has fittingly described them, serve as “multicultural navigators.”

Other scholars have likewise pointed to the importance of students having mentors and role models who share a common language and history, who have overcome similar obstacles, and who can build bridges along students’ pathways through school (Cooper, 2002; Lynn, 2006; Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2003). In her article on how college outreach programs create pathways to higher education for Latino youth for whom college itself is uncertain, Cooper identified five overlapping components of successful outreach programs: family involvement, intensive academic instruction, strong counseling, the formation of supportive peer networks, and mentors who serve as cultural brokers and help students to acquire strong bicultural skills. In a larger review of effective college outreach programs, Gándara (2001) identified similar elements. The MEP includes all of these, although the MEP is not responsible for the core academic instruction that students receive. Instead, MEP advisors work closely with the schools’ counseling staff to place students in the courses required for high school graduation and college preparation, and they offer tutoring assistance to students who need additional academic support.

A key difference between the MEP and college outreach programs is that the latter are usually selective. Unlike programs such as AVID (Mehan et al., 1996), MESA (Garcia, 2001), and Puente (Gándara, 2002), which are targeted at a limited number of minority and low-income students whom schools have identified as college bound, the MEP serves all eligible students based on their parents’ work as agricultural laborers, regardless of their academic accomplishments. It helps those most at risk of dropping out to persist in school, and it helps students to prepare for college who never previously viewed this as a real possibility.

The MEP offers no panacea, however. Clearly, not all advisors are equally effective in their roles. Moreover, not all eligible migrant students are currently well served by the MEP, in part because some students are simply harder to reach but also because the advisor-student ratio is far too high in most schools. Unfortunately, since 1985, the number of MEP-funded teachers (or advisors) has declined dramatically, leading to an increase in the number of participants served by each instructional staff member (U.S. Department of Education, 2004a). Further, in 1995, the MEP cut the eligibility period from 6 years to 3 years, although students who have a new qualifying move continue to be able to extend their eligibility. More recently, the MEP has become even more restrictive in its target population, with priority for services directed to those students who are not meeting state standards for academic performance and whose schooling has been interrupted during the current school year (California Department of Education, 2006). We view this more restrictive policy as very shortsighted because even 3 years of support is not enough. Migrant students, as well as those who were formerly migrant, often need continuous help throughout their school careers to graduate from high school and to be prepared for postsecondary education or work. As the research on early outreach programs reveals, students such as those served by the MEP can teeter between academic success and failure right up to the end of 12th grade, and those who appear to be on track for graduation and even for college can suddenly become derailed (Cooper, 2002; Gándara, 2002; Roderick, Nagaoka, Coca, & Moeller, 2008). Given that the MEP is funded as a supplemental program to help children who are actively migrant, it can be argued that the regular school program should take over where the MEP leaves off. And indeed it should. But the reality is that the regular school program in most cases is not set up to provide the kinds of intensive supplemental support offered by the MEP advisors. It is all too common for migrant students and other low-income students of Mexican descent to fall through the cracks of mainstream school programs. It is precisely because migrant students find it difficult to obtain the support and guidance they need from their base teachers and counselors that they turn to the MEP advisors for accurate information, advocacy, and academic support.

It is unclear how much impact migrant advisors have on larger school structures and culture, but in some locations, it may be substantial. This is an area meriting further research. It is important to keep in mind, however, that responsibility for bringing about systemic change cannot rest with a supplemental program. As advocated in the literature on dropout prevention, programmatic approaches to meeting the needs of “at risk” students must be combined with changes to the larger systems and structures within which they operate. Yet systemic changes are extremely difficult to achieve because they require fundamental changes to the ways in which institutions work (Rumberger, 2004). One place to begin, as illustrated by our study of the migrant advisors, is to ensure that immigrant and migrant youth have role models and mentors at school who have the capacity and commitment to serve as multicultural navigators and as institutional agents who can connect students with the resources needed for success in school.


We offer our ongoing thanks to the students and staff from Hillside High School who participated in this study and to the Migrant Education Program staff members at the four other high schools who generously shared their time and insights with us. The 4 years of research at Hillside High were made possible through generous grants from the Spencer Foundation (Grant No. 199900129) and the U.S. Department of Education/OERI (Grant No. R305T990174), Margaret A. Gibson, principal investigator.


1. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Migrant Education (n.d.) reported an estimated high school completion rate by migrant students of only 45%–50%, but the most recent and reliable national studies are now well over a decade old (Levy, 1987; Vamos, 1992, cited in Morse & Hammer, 1998). Collecting accurate school completion data is complicated by the students’ mobility and because the Office of Migrant Education stops tracking these children once they become ineligible for federal services.

2. Prior to 1995, the eligibility period lasted for 6 years.

3. In 2000–2001, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary (2004b) reported a total of 854,872 migrant children nationwide, including 257,547 in California, based on the 12-month count of eligible students.

4. The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) for 2001–2002 found that crop workers in 2001 averaged 34 1/2 weeks of farm work, plus 5 weeks of nonfarm work (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).

5. In 2001–2002, the average individual income of U.S. crop workers was between $10,000 and $12,499, and total family income averaged between $15,000 and $17,499 (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005).

6. The National Agricultural Workers Survey for 2001–2002 reported that 53% of the “hired crop labor force” lacked authorization to work in the U.S. (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005). It should be noted, however, that a very high percentage of those without documents are younger male workers without families. The NAWS provides no data on the number of migrant children who are themselves undocumented or live in households in which one or both parents are undocumented, nor are data on students’ status in the United States collected by the Migrant Education Program. According to the 1982 Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court ruling, undocumented children have the same constitutional right to free public education that all other children have.

7. The California Department of Education (2005) reported more than 300,000 migrant children attending California public schools (K–12) during the regular academic year and 178,000 who attended summer or intersession classes. This represents a significant increase from the 257,547 total reported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Migrant Education (n.d.) for California in 2000–2001.

8. All names are pseudonyms.

9. The research at Hillside High was carried out by a team of researchers including both authors. Margaret Gibson served as project director and principal investigator, and Nicole Hidalgo assisted with the field research during the project’s final 2 years. Study findings are drawn from a range of sources, including extensive participant observation at the field site, interviews with all teachers working in the Migrant Education Program at HHS during the 4 years of our fieldwork, student interviews and surveys, student records, and interviews with more than two dozen migrant parents.

10. This estimate is based on the median family income for the Appleton census tracts with the highest concentrations of Mexican-descent families (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002b) and on data provided by the regional director of the Migrant Education Program regarding the average earnings of migrant workers (personal communication, July 23, 2002).

11. Excluding 5 migrant students who moved from the area and whose school outcomes were unknown to us, 80% of the boys and 80% of the girls in our original sample of 160 students graduated from high school within 5 years of beginning ninth grade: A total of 109 students graduated from Hillside High and 7 from Appleton High; 8 more received their diplomas from the local continuation high school. Two students received their GED. The remaining 29 students (19% of the sample) left school without a diploma or GED.

12. Because of the complexities of tracking students over 4 years of high school and of identifying who is a migrant, as students move in and out of eligibility, we were able to collect school achievement and graduation data only at Hillside High School. The second study was limited to our comparative interviews with the migrant teachers in the five high school sites.

13. The quotes cited in this article were drawn from the views of migrant teachers at all five high school sites.

14. In the two regions where we conducted our research, more than three fourths of all the migrant teachers (K–12) were of Mexican origin, and many had grown up in migrant families.

15. All student interviews were carried out at Hillside High.

16. Quotations from parent interviews have been translated from Spanish. All parent interviews are from the Hillside High study.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 3, 2009, p. 683-711
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15341, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 9:17:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Margaret Gibson
    University of California, Santa Cruz
    E-mail Author
    MARGARET A. GIBSON is currently professor of education and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on the school performance of immigrant and minority youth, with particular attention to home-school-community connections and to how school contexts and peer relationships within school settings influence student participation and achievement in high schools. Her books include Accommodation Without Assimilation (1988), Minority Status and Schooling, coedited with John Ogbu (1991), and School Connections: U.S. Mexican Youth, Peers, and School Achievement, coedited with Patricia Gándara and Jill Peterson Koyama (2005).
  • Nicole Hidalgo
    University of California, Santa Cruz
    E-mail Author
    NICOLE D. HIDALGO is a doctoral candidate in education at the University of Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on transformational resistance, youth popular culture in schools, and critical college access for low-income inner-city youth. Her publications include a 2004 chapter on “Belonging and School Participation” (in School Connections) and a forthcoming chapter titled “When Stepping to College is Stepping to Consciousness: Critical Pedagogy for Transformational Resistance in an Urban High School Classroom” (in Handbook of Latinos and Education).
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