By Becky Bracken | Photos Courtesy of Queen Creek Unified School District
In the midst of the flurry of graduation season, there was one ceremony decidedly different from the rest. Tucked behind Queen Creek Elementary school is a portable classroom where family and friends of the Queen Creek Learning center gathered on May 18 for the preschool graduation of 17 very special little ones. Each student is the son or daughter of one of Arizona’s migrant workers. And this first step in their education is critical to keeping these children engaged, and in school, for many more years to come.
The Queen Creek Learning Center is a free preschool program for children ages 3 to 5 with a parent who is either enrolled in QCUSD Adult Education program or working on a farm, dairy or in a fishery. The preschool teacher, Maria Martinez, is fluent in Spanish and English and spent the year teaching them the standard preschool basics: letters, colors, numbers, how to use scissors, how to share and how to sit quietly during learning time. But, there’s one thing Ms. Martinez said she wanted them to know above all else.
“The most important thing they learned is that they are important, they are valued and they are loved,” Martinez said during the graduation ceremony.
Children of migrant workers face specific challenges. Their families move around a lot, the result of parents seeking seasonal work. Often, English isn’t the first language spoken at home. Transportation is scarce. Transferring in and out of different schools can prove difficult and keep children of migrant workers from attending school regularly, or cause them to fall behind their classmates. Thanks to federal grants and private partnerships, the Queen Creek Migrant Education program works with migrant families to provide the transportation and additional services necessary to help them access quality education both for themselves and their children.
Vivian Moreno’s son Isaiah Estrada was one of this year’s graduates from the Children’s Learning Center. She said volunteers came to her house to start working with her and Isaiah to get ready for school the year prior to his attending preschool. She said the transportation the Children’s Learning Center offers is critical. Otherwise, Isaiah wouldn’t have had the opportunity to attend.
“It was awkward at first,” Moreno said about the volunteers who first came out to visit and work with Isaiah. “But we’ve seen a ton of growth and his teachers say he’s ready for kindergarten.”
Moreno adds that having a Spanish-speaking teacher is invaluable, since Isaiah’s dad speaks only Spanish.
“It’s a big plus,” Moreno said.
Classroom lessons are taught in English, and Martinez said she’s focused on getting her students comfortable speaking in front of others.
“We teach them to speak in complete sentences,” Martinez said. “We encourage conversation and getting to know our friends.”
Of course, many of the recent preschool graduates of the Children’s Learning Center will leave the area so their parents can look for work, but the foundation of their education is something they will take with them wherever they go.
The Queen Creek Unified School District also offers an Adult Education Program, which is intended to help get migrant workers the skills they need to succeed. Parents who attend these classes can have their preschoolers in school at the same time, making accessing education easier for the whole family.
“We have one of the best adult education programs in the whole state,” Maria Silva, the Learning Center’s Special Projects Director, said. “We are given the opportunity to reach students who otherwise wouldn’t have had any help. This is my passion, helping these children succeed because they had the fundamentals.”