• by Frank Gonzales, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 1998 • 

Last summer, I provided training to a group of teachers of migrant students in Arkansas. One of the teachers, Nina Spencer from Wynn Public Schools, shared a poem that one of her 10th grade students wrote to her on the last day of school:

When I moved hereI had no one at all.
But you showed up
and broke my fall.
You believed in me
when no one else would.
When I was down
You told me I could.
Thanks for all the things
You’ve done.
Thanks to you
I just might have finally won.
Thanks, Mrs. Spencer, for all the help and motivation I need to get by.

This poem was written by a migrant student, and his poem exemplifies the great impact teachers are having on their students.

The term migrant children is associated with children whose parents are migrant agricultural workers and whose families have moved from one school district to another within the preceding 36 months.

The migrant child may be of any ethnicity. Depending on the geographical region, the migrant child may also be classified as an ethnic, racial or language-minority student. Many schools are experiencing increases in numbers of migrant students. In quite a few instances, migrant families are a new population in the community. Schools that have grown accustomed to serving a particular profile of students (usually a less diverse profile) find they must adapt in order to best serve all their students.

In recent years, communities in northwestern Arkansas have experienced an increase in the number of language-minority, migrant children. The northwest region of the state is an economically thriving area. Until the mid-1990s, few ethnic or linguistically-different people lived in this agricultural community, but the need for cheap labor in the poultry industry attracted recent immigrants from the Marshall Islands, Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central America and the southwest U.S. border states. These workers brought their families and impacted the schools and communities of the once Anglo American majority region in Arkansas.

The dramatic changes led surrounding schools to develop English as a second language (ESL) programs and to hire teachers and instructional aides who could communicate with Spanish-speaking children and who were familiar with the cultural characteristics of the newly arrived families.

During the past four years, many school districts, universities and education service centers in the region participated in extensive training and technical assistance from the IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative for Equity (SCCE). The center collaborated with the US Department of Education’s equity unit to assist the school districts in serving migrant children in the first through 12th grades. Also, the Tyson Corporation sponsored two ESL institutes for teachers.

Most people would be satisfied with these important changes and improvements to the school districts in the region. But Diana Worthen decided that something should also be done to support the primary language of students in the community. Ms. Worthen is a high school science teacher and mother of a 3-year-old daughter who speaks both English and Spanish. Three other concerned teachers from Rogers Public Schools, Maria Ramilo, Jared Patton and Al Lopez, agreed with her.

The Northwest Educational Co-op and the Springdale Public Library had an established pre-literacy story time program for 2- to 5-year-old children. The teachers requested that they provide story time and teaching activities for pre-kindergarten language-minority children and their families in Spanish as well.

Research indicates that children who are provided native language support through the fifth grade are more likely to do the following (Thomas and Collier, 1995).

  • Graduate from high school.
  • Score higher on standardized tests. (Bilingual students use different parts of the brain for cognitive skills.)
  • Acquire a second language (English) more effectively and easily. (It is easier for a child to learn a second language if the child has acquired the skills necessary to speak, read and write in his or her native language.)
  • Acquire the phonemic system (English sound system) as native speakers of English.

The next challenge was to acquire funding for Spanish-language books and equipment to use in training sessions with parents and volunteers working with pre-kindergarten language-minority children. The teachers submitted a proposal to the Arkansas State Department of Education Title VII coordinator. The state department awarded a grant for $8,000 to the Springdale Public Library to develop a pilot project that could be replicated by other communities.

The grant enabled the library to purchase 500 Spanish language books appropriate for 2- to 5-year-old children, equipment, incentive awards and supplies. It also supported development of a bilingual video and public service announcements for television and Spanish-language radio stations in the area.

The pre-literacy activities focus on the development of literacy skills for language-minority children and their families. The first series of the project began last month. The library is hosting storytelling and pre-literacy teaching activities twice weekly for seven-week periods in the spring, summer and fall of 1998. Parents, community volunteers and volunteer teachers staff the program and conduct the sessions.

The early childhood reading specialist from the Northwest Arkansas Educational Co-op and the children’s literature specialist at the library provide training sessions to volunteers in storytelling, pre-writing activities and utilizing the library. The library staff members will also document the process and activities, evaluate the project and submit a report to the Arkansas State Department of Education.

In the 1990s, many people have called for more collaboration. This example from northwest Arkansas demonstrates how concerned citizens can join together to improve education. More than 30 teachers and community members have agreed to participate in the storytelling sessions and literacy activities.

As an educator, I predict that this effort will be successful among language-minority children and parents. The project validates their language and culture, and it welcomes them into the world of the community library.

Teachers rarely discover the impact. They rarely receive personal poems from former students. But by collaborating with others in the community, they become better partners with families and students. The impact they have on each other shines through.


Thomas, W.P. and V.P. Collier. Language-Minority Student Achievement and Program Effectiveness (Manuscript in preparation, 1995).

Frank Gonzales, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and question may be sent to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]