Farmworker families often have to move from state to state to find work, and that makes school challenging for their kids. For over 40 years the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) ran a program to support this vulnerable student population, but that has come to an end.
Wyoming’s sugar beet harvest once was a big draw for migrant workers. On a tour of the farmland surrounding Torrington, Simon Lozano remembered a time when the fields were bustling.
“It was like 90 percent beets,” he said pointing out of the window of his truck.
But today, after driving about five miles outside of town we passed only one beet field and we didn’t see a soul out working the land.
When the sugar beet industry was in its heyday, Lozano said for miles and miles, “you’d see people out working in the heat of the day. All day.”
Lozano spent 30 years working as a teacher in Torrington. His students came from families who owned — and worked — these farms. In fact, before he was born his own family migrated from Mexico up to Wyoming to work the land.
“I spent some time thinning beets and weeding beans as a kid. So I know a little bit of what that was like,” said Lozano. “I can remember as a 4th grader or 5th grader looking down a row of beets thinking I’m never going to get to the end.”
But Lozano’s time in the fields was short. Unlike many farmworker families, who have to migrant from harvest to harvest, Lozano’s grandpa found permanent work on a ranch. That allowed Lozano to settle into a school district and focus on his studies.
Soon after starting his career as a high school language arts teacher he was recruited to help run a federally funded initiative called the Migrant Education Program.
Lozano said migrants would start showing up in late April for the beet harvest, which meant their kids hadn’t been able to finish up their school year back in places like Texas and Colorado. “So their regular school education was interrupted a lot, so we tried to fill the gaps.”
Lozano knows first hand that farmworkers are in the fields sun up to sun down doing back breaking labor to get the crops out of the fields as fast as possible, so their kids need extra support.
“We had kids from birth through high school in those early years. We would enroll around 200 kids.” Lozano paused caught up by emotion. “It was quite a program. It really was.”
In addition to Torrington, there were also sites in Powell and Worland. At the program’s height, there were about 900 migrant students statewide. But by 2008 that number had dropped to 246.
Lozano attributed this to several factors. Beets are now bio-engineered to require less weeding and machines can do the harvesting, so human hands are no longer in high demand. And Wyoming struggles to compete with the low price of imported sugar, forcing many beet farmers to abandon the industry altogether.
For the last several years just over 100 migrant students have been officially recorded statewide, and as a result, this year the WDE decided not to re-apply for federal funds to support migrant students. That makes Wyoming just one of four states without a migrant education program.
And that was hard news for Lozano to hear.
“I think it shows very little forethought and compassion.”
Farmworker families have the lowest annual income in the US, and studies show that nationally less than 50 percent of migrant students graduate from high school. So even though the numbers have dwindled, Lozano said he’s certain there are still migrant students in the Wyoming who need support.
But officials from the WDE said the decision was motivated by more than a decline in enrollment. Jo Ann Numoto directed the program until it ended. She said for Wyoming there was concern that the Migrant Education Program required the exchange of too much student information. “The Migrant Student Information Exchange — which we call MSIX — did not meet the contractual standards with third party accessibility.”
Numoto said there was worry that individuals outside of the migrant education program could access data on migrant students, but she wouldn’t say who.
Sandy Peterson directs North Dakota’s program and has worked in migrant education for over 30 years. I asked her if she’d encountered other state directors who are weary of MSIX.
She said no, paused and then added: “That sounds like an excuse. When you have a migrant program you have to have a migrant database.”
Peterson said the information in the database helps teachers down the road pick up where migrant students left off. School district administrators can access things like reading and math assessment scores and grades.
I also checked in with Dr. Bill Bansberg who coordinates a migrant literacy program in 11 different states. He said heavily guarding migrant student data is standard practice.
“This is something that is drilled into every single migrant program from the US Office of Migrant Ed. All of this data needs to be password protected,” said Bansberg. “It needs to be confidential.”
For Bansberg it’s more important to provide continuity in education than to worry about over protecting student data. “I mean because someone doesn’t want to fill out the paperwork. Really? That’s the reason you’re not going to have a program because that’s what it amounts to.”
Bansberg was surprised to learn Wyoming was not taking the $200,000 dollars allotted by the federal government and was giving up the opportunity to support migrant students who pass through the state, no matter how few there are now.
Dicky Shanor is the Wyoming Department of Education chief of staff. He said protecting student data privacy was a strong enough priority for the state to forego that funding.
“In this situation, where the population it was intended to help really was down to a very small number,” Shanor said, “we did not believe it was necessary to accept that federal money.”
But Nevada and New Hampshire, who also have just over 100 migrant students, are continuing their programs. In upcoming reporting, I’ll explore how they’re making that work.