Twin Falls School District’s migrant summer school helps fill academic gaps for children who move frequently.

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TWIN FALLS, Idaho — With paper cutters and tape, Jose Juarez and his middle-school peers made marble mazes on a June afternoon. But once migrant summer school ended, 14-year-old Jose would labor in Hazelton bean fields again.

Yes, the Twin Falls School District’s migrant summer school is about writing and math. But it’s also about not picking rocks or feeding calves.

At least for three short weeks.

The district’s annual June program helps fill academic gaps for children who move frequently, and organizers say it also keeps them out of agricultural fields. But when summer school ends, many migrant students head back to work.

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Their summer-school lessons aim to help them see beyond the fields.

This is Jose’s second summer of farm work, clocking in from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last year, he earned $2,000 and gave it to his mother.

“I don’t like staying at home doing nothing,” the Robert Stuart Middle School student said. “I like being out in the fields.”

The district’s migrant program, however, aims to help students finish their educations and find more stable lifestyles.

Some parents plan their work schedules around migrant summer school, said Abby Montano, migrant coordinator for the Twin Falls district. But after that, some families move for summer jobs — perhaps in California, Texas, Minnesota or Arizona — and come back to Twin Falls in the fall.

Growing enrollment

While the number of migrant families has dropped across Idaho, enrollment in Twin Falls’ migrant summer school rose sharply this year.

Normally about 100 students sign up for the summer school, which the district has offered for more than 20 years. This year, 160 registered.

Parents asked the district to expand summer school to include middle schoolers, Montano said, so their children weren’t home alone. This is the second year that middle schoolers were included, and their numbers doubled to 26 students.

About $72,000 of the school district’s $232,357 in annual federal migrant money goes toward operating summer school for students through eighth grade. Academic instruction focuses on key subjects such as English and math. For middle schoolers, there’s a stronger focus on math and science.

“That’s the areas where they struggle more during the school year,” middle school migrant liaison Carmen Castillo said.

For high schoolers, the district last year launched a summer program where they can make up lost class credits in English, math or social studies, or get extra academic help.

Younger students often ask about migrant summer school during the school year and look forward to it, Montano said. About four years ago, organizers revamped it into a camplike atmosphere with cheers and dances every day. And instruction revolves around a different theme each year.

“The kids are really excited because we’ve made that change to themes,” Montano said.

This summer, students went on field trips to the College of Southern Idaho’s outdoor challenge course, Zoo Boise, Twin Falls City Park, KMVT and a radio station, and downtown Twin Falls.

Students also build friendships. Children from three families were meeting Twin Falls peers for the first time because they moved at the end of the school year from Kimberly and Filer.

It’s still school

Migrant summer school may feel like a camp, but it still stresses academics. And it still looks like school.

On June 1, the first day of summer school, a long line of parents and children formed at Oregon Trail Elementary School’s front lobby.

“Are we trying to find classes?” a school secretary asked one family. She switched to Spanish to talk with a mother.

Principal Shari Cowger stood in the junction of two hallways helping students find the correct classrooms. “First and second (grades) this way,” she said, pointing down a hallway.

Three school buses were running late and finally arrived at nearly 9 a.m., about 30 minutes after the first bell rang.

In one classroom, dozens of students in third through fifth grades found chairs at pods of four desks facing each other. Teachers Katrina Allen and Noell Bautista greeted children — some of whom were former students. In the back, 16-year-old Juan Gomez Arroyo — who’s too old for summer school — was watching his sisters’ classroom along with several other helpers.

The teachers were expecting 56 third- through fifth-graders, Bautista said as she cradled a large stack of notebooks in her arms — the biggest group she’d ever had for migrant summer school.

Cowger’s voice on the intercom welcomed students, quoting from a Dr. Seuss book and telling students to work hard and enjoy the experience.

“Make it a great day or not,” she said. “The choice is yours.”

Across the hallway, teacher Julie Delia told middle schoolers that migrant summer school would include fun activities. But she told them to take it seriously.

She wrote a list of expectations on the whiteboard. The first: “This is a school.”

Her hot-button issue is disrespect, she told students. As she explained her expectations, the classroom was completely quiet. Finally, one of her former students said: “I know. I pushed it last year.”

Exploring careers

This year’s theme: “A Day in the Life.” Children explored career options and what steps they’d need to take to achieve their goals.

On the first day, Cowger brought a stack of “Career Day” picture books into the third- through fifth-grade classroom.

Bautista told students to keep track of their books. “We’re going to be moving rooms all the time.”

Students also received journals they wrote in every day. And throughout the three-week program, they heard from guest speakers and toured Twin Falls workplaces.

“What’s a career?” Bautista asked on the first day. A boy raised his hand. “It’s like a job,” he said.

She asked students to share what their ideal career would be. Reina Gomez Arroyo, 10, was the first to raise her hand. “Doctor,” she said, and Bautista wrote that on the whiteboard. Others were interested in teaching or art.

In the middle-school classroom, Delia told students they have fewer than 10 years before they’ll be in the workplace. It’s important to find your passion, she said.

A week later, around 40 third- through fifth-graders took a field trip to downtown Twin Falls to learn about careers.

In front of Fuller Law Offices with six students, school librarian Alisa Radmall described why people may need an attorney. She gave a scenario, describing what would happen if someone robbed a bank or were falsely accused of a crime.

She also described the education needed to become an attorney. “Do they have to go to school for a long time?” she asked. Students nodded.

Their next stop: Rudy’s — A Cook’s Paradise. “They sell stuff to help you cook,” Radmall told students, pointing out colorful strainers displayed in the store window.

In front of Sav-Mor Drug, Radmall described a pharmacy’s purpose: “This is a place where you can get medicine to help you feel better.”

Life skills

Beyond academic instruction, summer-school students learned life skills.

On Tuesday of the second week, kindergartners through second-graders listened to a nutrition lesson from Carol Biggers of the University of Idaho’s Extension office.

She told students they should eat whole-grain breads and pastas, which are “healthier for our bodies” and have more fiber, vitamins and minerals.

“Who likes pasta?” Biggers asked about 40 students, and nearly all raised their hands. She also talked about limiting sweets, calling a doughnut a “once-in-a-while treat.”

On June 17, the last day of summer school, it was time for students to demonstrate what they learned for their families.

Third- through fifth-graders were getting ready for a dance performance — girls in white shirts and colorful skirts, boys in sombreros and fake bow ties made of ribbon.

Inside the gym, Montano had a huge smile. “I’m so happy,” she said, looking around at dozens of parents and children who came for the open house. “All my families came.”

As an exchange teacher from Mexico directed about 30 students in Spanish where to stand before a dance performance, Reina twirled her skirt. She fidgeted and crossed her arms after the teacher put her in the front row.

“Smile, Reina,” Cowger called out. Nearby, Juan waited to join the young dancers for the performance.

After the show, parents followed students back to their classrooms to see their projects. In one hallway, middle schoolers displayed poster boards about careers and demonstrated the paper marble mazes they created.

Earlier that day, elementary schoolers sat on a grassy lawn behind the school under the shade of trees. They watched as middle schoolers tested their hot-air balloons made of tissue paper.

Montano passed around a glue stick for last-minute repairs. Two employees turned on a portable propane stove and held each balloon over it to heat it. Then they gently gave the balloon a push to send it into the air.

Some of the balloons had holes and didn’t go far. But others sailed farther, and with each successful run, children cheered and clapped. Once or twice, they chased hot-air balloons that soared above the playground.

A few balloons landed on the school roof, where a custodian waited to retrieve them.

Jose tried out his hot-air balloon that day. But soon, he’d be back in the farm fields.

It’s a tiring job. At the end of a workday, he said, “I just want to take a shower and lay down.”

But Jose, born in Twin Falls, has bigger dreams: becoming a U.S. Navy SEAL.

“I like protecting my country.”