SICKLERVILLE, N.J.—The work is grueling, the pay meager, and home might be a crowded bunkhouse or the back of a van, but migrant families in southern New Jersey for the blueberry harvest receive a perk worthy of their labors.
Their children, whether toddlers or teens, automatically qualify for a free, state-of-the-art summer school, with multilingual teachers encouraging pupils they might never see again after the berry season ends. While the parents toil in the fields, their sons and daughters might be exploring the Internet or practicing with a precision drill team.
Many of the families swiftly move on, heading to late-summer jobs in Maine or Michigan, then returning to Mexico or Florida for the winter before starting a northward trek again in the spring—their children experiencing school in short, disrupted spurts. Summer school—part of an imperfect but ambitious federal initiative—is intended to fill the gaps and keep the children within academic striking distance of their more stable peers.
Alma’s summer program is based at a large elementary school in Sicklerville, halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City in the heart of New Jersey’s blueberry country. Roughly 200 children are picked up from fieldside camps and rundown motels by a fleet of buses, brought to school in time for breakfast, then taken after classes to a summer camp for recreation and supper before heading back to their families.
Most of the families are from Mexico, others from Haiti; many of the children were born in far-flung American farming towns and thus are U.S. citizens. “The Haitian and Mexican kids are very distant—they don’t know each other’s culture,” Freudenberg said. “We try to promote harmony.”
To woo teens into class, the school offers some $6-an-hour part-time jobs, such as cleaning the cafeteria. Juan Carlos Castenada, a 14-year-old who has such a job, said the summer school is much bigger and better equipped than his three-classroom school in Toluca, Mexico.
The Sicklerville program accommodates children as young as 3. A separate Migrant Head Start Program accepts kids as young as 6 months. “Our staff needs to be realistic—they may have just one shot at these kids,” said Peg Cunningham, co-director of a New Jersey-based Head Start program.