NEW OXFORD Pa.
Uprooted from his native Mexico and overwhelmed by an unfamiliar language, Jorge Lua-Ildefonso was miserable on his first day of school in the United States just five years ago.
He wasn’t sure he would make it beyond his first week in eighth grade.
“I felt fear because it was my first time,” said Lua-Ildefonso, now 18. “It was terrible. I couldn’t understand what I was supposed to do, what they were saying.”
He overcame the language barrier and graduated from high school this month, thanks to a program that helps to educate the children of migrant workers, who frequently cross school district boundaries and state lines in search of seasonal work in the agriculture, dairy, fishing and food processing industries.
Lua-Ildefonso and 161 other migrant students successfully completed their schooling this year in Pennsylvania after receiving extra instruction through the nation’s migrant education program, established more than 40 years ago amid President Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to combat poverty.
Educators say the stories of students like Lua-Ildefonso show how motivated many young Hispanic, Asian and other foreigners are to assimilate and follow the path of immigrants before them.
The migrant education program, serving hundreds of thousands of children, gives students an equal opportunity for success in college and the workplace enabling them to build on the work their parents began when they traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles from home in search of better lives, educators say. The program accepts children regardless of whether their families have entered the country legally.
“It’s a hardworking population interested in trying to achieve the American dream,” said Alex Goniprow, acting director of the federal program. “They have high expectations for their children, and they see this (program) as an opportunity for the next generation to do a little bit better than themselves.”
The federal government devotes about $380 million to migrant education in grants to the states, which administer the programs and can supplement the grants with their own money. Pennsylvania spent $847,000 in state money on migrant education in the current fiscal year.
Lua-Ildefonso’s story starts in the Mexican state of Michoacan, where the entire family lived on his grandparents’ farm.
In a moving pattern typical of migrant families, his father, Joel, was the first one to come to the U.S. 17 years ago with the help of some friends, spending time in “a lot of different places,” according to Lua-Ildefonso.
As time went on, his mother and younger siblings followed. Lua-Ildefonso preferred to stay behind on the farm and had mixed feelings about moving whenever his parents would call to talk to him about joining the family.
But he also missed his parents, who insisted that life was better in America. With the help of an aunt, he made his way to Pennsylvania, where the family had settled, in 2002.
“I saw in Mexico, a lot of my friends were with their families, happy,” he said. “I was the only one who wasn’t with my parents.”
Today, home is a three-bedroom apartment just two blocks from the town square in New Oxford, a tiny borough of about 1,700 billed as the “antiques capital of central Pennsylvania.” His mother, Martha, stays home to care for the four children while his father picks apples in the region’s orchard-rich farmland; when farm work isn’t available, he labors at construction sites.
Although the living quarters are tight, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Numerous pink and white doilies knitted by Lua-Ildefonso’s mother are draped over the coffee table and couches in the family room, while the walls are crammed with family photos and school artwork, including a Mother’s Day card made from construction paper.
Janice Neely, an English as a Second Language teacher, remembers Lua-Ildefonso’s first day at New Oxford Middle School. She had hoped to greet him upon his arrival and was surprised to see he was already there.
“Here was this little Mexican boy, petrified, standing there all by himself, and there’s a lot of activity going on around him,” Neely said. “My heart went out to him.”
Once he reached high school, he was able to supplement his English-language instruction with an after-school tutoring program for Hispanic high school students at nearby Gettysburg College. Students from four area school districts are bused to the college after school twice a week, and then to their homes when the sessions are over.
The tutoring can be particularly helpful for challenging subjects such as social studies, said Marilyn Springsted, a student support specialist for the Lincoln Intermediate Unit, one of five regional education agencies that oversees migrant education in Pennsylvania.
“If the kids are learning U.S. history and their culture and country is Mexico … it can be difficult to understand,” Springsted said.
Other Mexican students whom Lua-Ildefonso befriended also helped him decode the language, and as time went on he grew more confident in his new surroundings. He joined the high school soccer team, got a job at a pizza shop, achieved a 3.5 grade-point average, and spent the second half of his junior year tutoring and mentoring a Mexican exchange student.
“When I got here, my friends gave me help, so I had to be able to help somebody else, too,” Lua-Ildefonso said.
Program officials were so impressed with Lua-Ildefonso’s progress that they asked him to give a speech about his experience at a statewide ceremony in Harrisburg this month.
“He’s experienced success in the education system, he’s working to help support his family, and he’s out interacting with the English-speaking public on a daily basis,” Neely said. “We knew he would represent the program well.”
Lua-Ildefonso has no immediate college plans, but is contemplating a career as either an architect or a restaurant owner. He would like to continue his education in Mexico and is trying to save money.
The apparent tug-of-war that he feels between his homeland and his new home comes as no surprise to Neely.
“I think a lot of Mexican teenagers will always be torn,” she said, “because they can’t find a living wage in their country, and that’s what’s familiar to them, where they were born and raised.”
On the Net:
National migrant education program: http://www.ed.gov/programs/mep
National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education: http://nasdme.org/
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