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Connecting Migrant Students with Critical Services

Posted on 09.20.2017

Migrant Students


  • Migrant students are highly mobile and often live in poverty, putting them at academic risk.
  • The Migrant Student Information Network helps schools connect migrant students with appropriate education supports.

The cherry harvest ending early in San Joaquin Valley this year held little, if any, significance for most Californians. But for migrant farmworkers, the early harvest uprooted families at a most inopportune time, sending them north right before the end of the school year.

Whether within or between states, calendar-dependent migratory moves are commonplace for the people who put food on our tables, bring fish to the market, and fell trees to build homes. Unfortunately, such frequent moves also disrupt the education of children of migrant workers and challenge the schools that need to track and serve them.

To help ensure that schools are aware of and able to provide appropriate supports to their migrant student population, WestEd developed and manages the Migrant Student Information Network (MSIN). The MSIN plays an integral role in the California Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program, which provides critical academic and support services to children of migrant families across the state. Integrated with California’s longitudinal student data system, the MSIN serves as a central student information system for the state’s migrant student population, which, at over 100,000 children, is by far the largest in the country.

“Through the MSIN, we work to ensure that every migrant student has access to the appropriate education supports they need to succeed in school,” says Glenn Miller, a senior research associate at WestEd who helps manage the network. “We’ve put the systems in place to enable all educators and administrators to access accurate, up-to-date information about these students as quickly and transparently as possible, so it doesn’t take weeks to locate and properly support them each time they move.”

In addition to managing the MSIN, WestEd staff provide training, tools, and technical assistance to help regional administrators locate all eligible migrant students and log data about them into the system. Rather than scrambling to gather all the past student records each time a new migrant student arrives, schools can use the MSIN to quickly retrieve a complete history of each migrant student’s eligibility and service needs — essentially a snapshot of academic achievement, coursework, and special needs or diagnoses.

“An administrator using the MSIN might notice that a migrant student in 10th grade has missed Algebra, for example, and will need targeted support to get back on track in his math trajectory,” says Miller. “Or a teacher might notice that a student was taking an AP course in the previous district, and say, ‘Great, let’s make sure to keep that AP coursework going.’”

“At the end of the day, this work is all about equity.”

WestEd also helps ensure that migrant students most at risk of academic failure, such as those identified as English learners or those designated as eligible for special education services, are flagged accordingly so they can be targeted for appropriate assistance.

Supporting a vulnerable student population

Nearly a third of the nation’s migrant student population lives in California. In addition to being highly mobile, without stable housing, which causes frequent interruptions in schooling, these children often live in poverty and are likely to be English learners. Such conditions can put them at academic risk, leading them to perform below peers in state assessments and to graduate at far lower rates.

The threat of deportation further complicates the task of identifying some migrant families who seek to stay in the shadows. “They may be fearful and resistant to being found,” says Miller. “However, it’s critical that these families understand the state’s data is not openly shared and that field practitioners will not ask about citizenship status, especially since all children in the United States are entitled to a free public education and the supports they need to be successful.” The only data recorded in the system, notes Miller, are the data required to establish students’ eligibility for the Migrant Education Program and data to monitor their educational needs and progress.

California’s Migrant Education Program benefits both students and their parents, and enhances not only academic achievement but also health and social and emotional development, notes Veronica Aguila, director of the California Department of Education (CDE) English Learner Support Division. “Because they have unique needs,” she says, “migrant children have access to particular services such as preschool, parent training, after-school tutoring, and trips to universities for middle- and high-school students.”

The biggest successes of the Migrant Education Program, she says, are a lowered dropout rate and an increased college attendance rate. “Legislators and judges are among the former migrant students who have benefited from this program,” says Aguila, who, once a migrant student herself, regrets having no knowledge of the program when she was school-age. The first in her family to attend college, she says she might have benefited from the program’s financial support but, instead, worked three jobs to put herself through college.

Centralizing data and reducing the impact of migrant moves

WestEd has partnered with the CDE for almost two decades to support the Migrant Education Program. “WestEd plays a critical role in supporting the identification and recruitment of migrant families, and in helping to qualify those who are eligible for the program,” says Celina Torres, administrator of the CDE’s Migrant Education Office. Through managing the MSIN — and providing tools, technical assistance, and data management training to regional offices — WestEd has enabled California to produce an unduplicated statewide count of migrant students, notes Torres, enabling the state to access federal funding and calibrate the program to effectively support this vulnerable population.

The MSIN has evolved dramatically over the years, says Miller. “The previous set of systems had 300 databases that consolidated into 20 regional databases, which were developed and supported by a private company. Those databases were populated by regional centers based on their own local operating rules,” he says. “WestEd was able to merge all that disparate data into one statewide database.” The previous setup made transferring data from site to site an inefficient process; resulting in time lapses and some inevitable miscounts of children created innumerable problems.

To streamline the process, says Miller, WestEd launched MSIN 6.0, a single system with a single set of data entry rules and validation. This system enables WestEd to host and manage the migrant data in one secure, centrally managed server, making data available in real time, 24/7. “This system creates an ease in managing and accessing all the data at both the state and local level,” says Torres.

The updates to the system have also further tightened the security of the data and dramatically reduced the risk of data loss, notes Miller. And with the new centralized system, he adds, WestEd has increased control over who has data access, which is limited to the CDE, local Migrant Education Program staff, and the districts the local programs work with.

Through negotiating data exchange with the CDE, says Miller, WestEd has helped double the number of migrant students identified by the state, which is essential for securing adequate funding and support for those students. In addition, the percentage of migrant students identified as English learners has increased by 20 percent. “Identifying English learners early,” says Aguila, “means all students can be served and little time is wasted in placing them in the right courses with appropriate English learner support services.”
WestEd staff are now addressing issues related to providing better support to those migrant students who move between states. The agency has joined a national working committee supporting the federal Migrant Student Information Exchange in order to share expertise in data collection and fieldwork with other states. That collaboration may be a special boon to states with fewer resources or less experience than California.

“At the end of the day, this work is all about equity,” says Miller. “It’s about ensuring that a child of migrant farmworkers has the same opportunities as a child who has lived in the same house his entire life with two college-educated parents.”

The Migrant Student Information Network is funded by the California Department of Education through a Title I, Part C grant from the U.S. Department of Education.