Field Day: Blueberry Harvest School Teaches Migrant Workers’ Kids

Sep 2, 2016

September means one thing for most kids in Maine: an end to summer holidays and the start of classes. But for some, the school year isn’t that straightforward, because their parents chase the seasons from Texas to Maine, harvesting vegetables, picking apples and raking blueberries.

The federally funded Migrant Education Program seeks to fill some of the gaps left by a life on the road.

It’s early, shortly after 6 a.m. in Milbridge recently. Eight young children, too sleepy to misbehave, are going for a bone-shaking ride on a big yellow school bus to nearby Harrington, where the kids meet for class.

At the front of the bus, holding a clipboard and keeping watch, is Tarsis Rodriguez, the bus aid as well as the 10- and 11-year-old co-teacher.

It’s Rodriguez’s first year with the Blueberry Harvest School. As co-teacher, she will help the kids with their lessons, but more than that, she wants to be there for any migrant child who just needs to talk, whether in English or in Spanish.

Feeling displaced, she says, can be hard.

“My parents are immigrants. They’re from Central America and I’m a first-generation born, and you know, going to school in the West Coast, in California, where I’m from, was very difficult. And the teachers I did meet throughout my life that really did make an impact made all the difference and I felt like maybe some day I might do that for someone else,” she says.

While they attend class, their parents are busy bringing in Maine’s $75 million wild blueberry harvest. Some are Spanish speakers, but most of the raking is done by the region’s native Mi’kmaq communities, who make the hours-long journey from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to stay in the workers’ camp in nearby DeBlois, where the bus stops next.

Tarsis Rodriguez (right), a bus aid and the 10- and 11-year-old co-teacher.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / MPBN

Another 10 or 12 kids get on, and the bus rattles on down the road to Harrington Elementary School, where breakfast is the first item on the agenda. In the cafeteria, egg and cheese sandwiches, cereals, fruit and milk are on offer, but they’re most interested in the reporter’s microphone.

They shout into the mic that they’re from Elsipogtog First Nation, New Brunswick, Canada, and that they’re going to the beach on this day.

The whole school is going on a science field trip to Roque Bluffs State Park to learn about sea life. It’s a trip that 5-year-old Sam, whose home language is Mi’kmaq, is looking forward to. He says wants to find a big bucket so he can collect seashells.

Sam has three siblings at the school and two others who are staying at camp to help their mother with the raking.

Mi’kmaq teacher Peggy Clement says she’s never seen so many kids in one summer, with about 100 or more per day reporting for school. A couple years ago, that number was somewhere around 80. Parents, she says, are becoming more aware that the program exists.

A teacher asks for volunteers during a class.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / MPBN

Clement says she also has a personal reason for getting involved with the school: As a child, she worked every summer in the barrens.

“That’s how we earned our school clothes and stuff we needed for going back to school in the fall. And it’s hard like, you know when you travel, especially when you’re a child, but as children they have to go with their parents,” she says.

The Blueberry Harvest School is part of the federally funded migrant education program offered year round. The majority of Maine’s participants come for three weeks in August to bring in the berries. Others work in Aroostook’s broccoli fields.

“I don’t think that Maine has a full appreciation for the role that migrant workers play in the natural resource economy, and for how challenging the lifestyle is,” says Ian Yaffe, who directs Mano en Mano, a Milbridge-based nonprofit that runs the harvest school program for the Maine Department of Education.

Families, he says, shouldn’t have to choose between a livelihood and education.

“I think Maine is a stronger place because of this and because of these families who are coming here to help feed us all,” he says.

Migrant kids at the beach during a recent field trip.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / MPBN

The school buses drive nearly 300 miles each day. The teachers coordinate three weeks of lesson plans and classes for ages 3 through 13. Breakfast, lunch and snacks are dished out by a brigade of canteen workers. And then there are the field trips.

Back on the bus, en route to their day out, two girls from different villages in Canada have been singing songs in Mi’kmaq, and comparing their language to that of a Passamaquoddy girl sitting near them who hails from Indian Township.

A few minutes later, all the kids are on the beach, peering into tidal pools and playing educational games. When the harvest is over, many will return to Canada, and others will leave Maine to wherever their parent’s next job takes them.