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Filling needs for migrant families

Filling needs for migrant families
Mia Garza, 10, watches as a pink lady butterfly lands on a student’s hand during a butterfly release last week. Kendra Madrigal, 5, is hoping to hold it, too, as her twin brother, Martin, partially hidden, watches. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

It’s not often you see students who are genuinely excited to be at summer school – but the Migrant Education Program (MEP) in Owatonna isn’t a typical summer school.

Officially, “the goal … is to assist all migrant students to meet the challenging academic standards and achieve graduation.”

Locally, “I always say it’s like my babies are coming home,” said Shannon Prostrollo. “It’s just fun to watch them grow, and each year, they come home.”

Prostrollo has taught in Owatonna School District’s MEP for about 10 years. Before that, she spent two years in its head start program.

“I’ve literally potty-trained some of these kids,” she laughed.

Summer school an advantage

That includes people like Erika Duran, now 16. Though Texas is home, she moves north in the summer with parents who work seasonal jobs in the area.

Duran has been attending the MEP for years.

“I just like how we do fun stuff every year, and we learn, too,” she said during a break in the morning session.

That echoed what cousins Maria Hernandez, 16, and Giselle Tovar, 18, said moments earlier.

“Oh, my god, it’s so fun,” Tovar said. “It’s not only the field trips, we do other stuff. We get to learn more.”

She and Hernandez both said they feel like they have an advantage when they head back to school in Texas in the fall.

“Our families engage in agricultural work,” said Martina Wagner, coordinator of educational equity for the district. “They typically come from the south, but we have students from Nicaragua or Mexico, whose parents migrate for work.”

Largest in the state

The six-week program serves the Waseca, Dodge Center, and Owatonna school districts, in cities that employ the largest group of migrant workers via Birds Eye, ConAgra and Lakeside Foods.

Those businesses work closely with the district, Wagner said, to provide multiple health and legal services. Owatonna Middle School will host a dental clinic on July 19.

MEP is funded by a federal grant allocated through the Minnesota Department of Education, based on a percentage of the previous year’s student enrollment.

Owatonna has the largest summer migrant ed program in the state. Wagner expects up to 100 students by the end of the program, as crops approach harvest and more employees are needed. More than 50 students in the K-5 group include 15 kindergartners. The program is hiring a second teacher for that age group.

“The pea pack will start August 1, but we end at the end of July, so I only ever get enough funds to run about six weeks with a full staff,” she said.

Staff brings kids back

So why do students who aren’t required to attend summer school – especially teenagers – keep coming back?

“I think it’s our continuing staff,” Wagner said, with people like Prostrollo, who have taught for years.

“We really look at the whole child,” she said. “We hit academics, but we also think about being so mobile, so transient; what makes it feel like home? I just let them teach. When you let your teachers go and they recognize the needs of kids, this is what happens.”

Andrew Malo, who teaches in the MEP secondary class, is one example.

“He specifically got licensed as a lifeguard, so he could take them into the pool,” Wagner said.

Malo, a Spanish and world languages teacher at OMS during the regular school year, is also Owatonna’s 2022 Teacher of the Year.

“We’re obviously giving them an education, but we’re also giving them a second home. Or a third home,” Wagner said. “We have kids who don’t need to be here, but they come back because they have relationships.”

The morning is classroom-time; the afternoon offers flexibility for other types of learning.

Some of the students don’t speak English; most of the teachers and educational assistants are bilingual. Sylvia Zavala, a recruiter for the local MEP, has come full circle.

“I was a migrant family, too,” she said, though her family traveled mainly to North Dakota and Wisconsin when she was a child.

What MEP means

What did the migrant school mean for her?

“A lot,” she said, emotion in her voice. “That’s why I love this job. I loved going to the migrant school. They’d come pick us up, and I can remember carrying my little brothers on the bus. And the field trips … sometimes, your parents couldn’t afford (schoolyear) field trips, but we could go on these.”

It’s her way of giving back: As a recruiter, she goes to the migrant camps in Claremont and Waseca, putting up flyers and knocking on doors to tell families about the MEP.

Prostrollo, who taught Spanish at St. Mary’s School in Owatonna for several years, now teaches English as a second language to OMS sixth graders.

Her goal with the MEP, she said, “is to show them that school is a safe place to be, where they know they’re loved and respected. It’s different from the regular school year; our focus is on learning, but also about having fun and giving them experiences they might not otherwise have.”

As a teacher in the K-5 group, she also introduces them to the school system.

“For our friends who don’t speak much English, we practice that, hopefully preparing them for the fall,” Prostrollo said.

She describes herself as “fluent-ish” in Spanish, adding that “when you bring Sylvia into the room to give directions, they can tell that she’s more like family; she’s part of their community more than I can be.”

Prostrollo’s educational assistant is one of her former students at St. Mary’s. Molly Hawkins, of Owatonna, will graduate next spring from UW-La Crosse as a Spanish teacher with ESL certification.

“I think it’s really unique that we have the largest migrant school in the state in my hometown, and honestly, I didn’t even know about it until this summer,” she said. “It’s sad, because it’s such a cool program.”

The students, Hawkins said, “have been really patient with me. A lot of time, they’ll say, ‘you need to speak (Spanish) slowly with Molly.’ But it’s a great opportunity to speak Spanish with kids, which is exactly what I want to do.”

She struggles with the double standard of being bilingual.

“Speaking two languages for me is such a hard thing to accomplish, and whenever I tell people about it, they’re like, ‘wow, what’s so cool.’ But these kids are 5 years old and can speak two languages, and it’s not viewed the same,” Hawkins said. “It’s cruel that it’s not seen as an asset.”

Prostrollo agreed.

“These kids belong here just as much as any other kid,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “They’re part of our community, and when they’re here, we show them that.”

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