Overcoming barriers

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Program helps migrant students keep progressing

By Stephen Lega

Dexi Irvin sat down and opened her reading book at the small desk in Elma Simpson’s office. Today’s lesson emphasized certain words, like ‘remembered.’
“Can you use that in a sentence?” Simpson asked.
“My brother remembered to close the door,” Irvin replied.
“Good,” Simpson said.
Irvin carefully sounded out the words as she read a story about a girl named Camilla and her family. When she had trouble with a name or a new word, Simpson was there to offer guidance.
Simpson – “Miss Elma” to her students — is the migrant advocate and teacher for Marion County Public Schools. It’s a program that’s often misunderstood, even sometimes by educators within the district.
Simpson recalled going to a school last year and having a teacher tell her that they had a new student who didn’t speak English. Simpson explained that they needed to contact Stephanie Gootee, the district’s English Language Learner teacher. Now, Simpson said that some students may qualify for both migrant services and the ELL programs, and she said she does collaborate with ELL, the 21st Century Community Learning Center and other special programs within the district.
“Our goal is to break down the barriers that keep students from learning,” she said.
As mentioned above, eligibility for the migrant program is not based on the student’s primary language, however. To qualify for migrant services, students must have moved from another country, another state or another district in Kentucky, and their parents must have moved to Marion County for agricultural work.
“When I first took the position, we only had 10 kids identified in the migrant program,” Simpson said.
That was in 2005, and the total budget for the program was around $10,000, she said.
“Most of the time, I used my car as my office,” Simpson said.
She recalled one time a man looked in the back of her car and asked her if she was a book salesperson.
A few years ago, Simpson received her own classroom space at the 21st Century Learning Center. She uses the space as an office (which means she doesn’t need to keep her car as loaded down anymore) and as a classroom.
She still makes visits to schools throughout the week to work with students one-on-one and sometimes to collaborate with the students’ classroom teachers, but students also come to the 21st Century Learning Center for after school and summer programs.
As of last week, Simpson said there are 15 students in the migrant program among the seven schools in the district.
Funding is based on the numbers of eligible students in the district and comes from the U.S. Department of Education. The funds are distributed to each district through non-competitive grants from the Kentucky Department of Education. Troy Benningfield, the MCPS special programs director, said Marion County’s program will receive approximately $120,000 this year.
Leanna Stewart served as Simpson’s assistant for the past two years before being hired as the new 21st Century Community Learning Center director this year. She said she and Simpson will continue to work together, and her past two years gave Stewart a greater appreciation for the migrant program.
“There’s a great need for it,” Stewart said. “There’s so many kids that need help … I think the migrant program helps them be successful.”
Perhaps just as important as the direct work the migrant program does with students, Simpson said they also make an effort to reach out to parents. Last year, that included family nights for migrant families.
“We need to get parents involved in their child’s education,” Simpson said.
Those local efforts may also serve as a model for other programs throughout the state and nation. Simpson, Stewart and Benningfield will be presenting a session, “Building Relationships that Rock,” at the National Association of State Directors of Migrant Education (NASDME) conference in April in San Diego, California.
Simpson also served on a team that monitored migrant programs in Gerard, Nicholas and Pulaski counties, and three years ago she served on the Kentucky Migrant Education Re-Interview Panel, where she reviewed documentation to make sure all students who qualified for migrant services had been correctly identified.
Of course, Simpson’s favorite moments are about making connections about building relationships with her students.
“When I see them in Wal-mart and they say, ‘Hey, Miss Elma’ and give me a hug, it’s so rewarding,” she said.