It’s early January and a truck full of migrant children has just arrived at Immokalee Middle School in Collier County, Florida. The picking season recently ended in another part of the state, so these children of farm workers are back in town, where they’ll stay until the local tomato and grapefruit season ends in mid-May. Their families then will move on to Georgia, Tennessee, or the Carolinas. Maybe the children will attend school there, maybe not. But when the growing season up north ends in late October or November, the children will be back again for school in Immokalee.
“Some of these kids show up at our doors as late as January, and in February they’re required to sit down and take the FCAT [Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test],” explains Manny Touron, principal of Immokalee Middle School. “Many have been attending school in Tennessee or Georgia—but have they been covering the topics they’ll encounter on our Florida state assessments? We just don’t know.”
A Migrant Community
The town of Immokalee, just 40 miles inland from Florida’s Gulf Coast, is surrounded on three sides by citrus groves and tomato fields. Though it is a short drive from the resort towns of Fort Myers, Naples, and Sanibel Island, the average income for farmworkers in Immokalee is $6,574 a year, well below the federal poverty level. Immokalee Middle School serves more than 1,000 students. Of these, 72 percent are Hispanic and 12.5 percent are Haitian. More than 88 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch.
“This is a migrant community—many of our parents don’t speak English, and our children don’t grow up in highly literate environments,” explains Vice Principal Lisa Rivera Scanlon. In addition, migrant families struggle daily with basic survival issues: back-breaking labor, 12-hour work days, extremely low wages, poor housing, no legal protection from exploitation by landlords and labor contractors, and no health benefits or disability insurance. In recent years a local workers’ rights group, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, has been instrumental in exposing and prosecuting several forced labor rings operating in and around the town. A Justice Department official involved in these cases has referred to this region of South Florida as “ground zero for modern slavery.”*
Compounding these basic survival issues, children of farmworkers contend with regular disruptions in their studies as families follow the cycles of agricultural work around the region. Over-crowded homes afford little quiet space for homework. And a growing number of young people are contending with significant learning disabilities, like attention and audio-processing deficits. In fact, with more than 20 percent of the student body identified as learning disabled or qualifying for Exceptional Student Education (ESE), and another 60 percent on state-mandated Academic Improvement Plans, the majority of the students at Immokalee Middle are considered at risk for school failure.
Despite these challenges, the staff at Immokalee Middle are optimistic about their school and their students’ capacities to learn and thrive. “Immokalee is a real mosaic of people,” says Courtney Cassidy, a language arts teacher. “People here take such pride in their work and their families. It’s the perfect place to teach—you get your challenges and you get your rewards every day.” Lynn Bartlett, another language arts teacher, shares her enthusiasm: “These kids love the school because they know it is a safe and caring place to be. They see adults that respect them and care about them and have high expectations for them.”
In recent years Manny Touron and Lisa Rivera Scanlon have led their staff in several new initiatives designed to better meet their students’ learning needs. Responding to federal special education mandates, Touron and Scanlon decided to investigate ways to include their growing ESE population in their general education classrooms. “What we hope to see from these initiatives is less fragmented instruction. We want to bring together the general education, ESE, and ESL staff to work as teams,” says Touron. “Initially I was hoping that we would go for total inclusion,” reflects Scanlon, “but we’ve come to realize that this is not a realistic goal for our school right now. Instead, we’ve decided to identify a core group of teachers who are committed to our school and our population of students and prepare them to be leaders in inclusive learning strategies.”
The staff felt they needed assistance in mastering these new strategies for teaching important content in mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies to groups of students with very varied academic backgrounds and skills. Partners in Co-Teaching, a school-to-school mentoring program directed by EDC’s Cynthia Aguilar, is now providing that assistance. The program began by pairing a group of teachers from Immokalee with teachers from Manatee Middle School, another Collier County school that was successfully adopting an inclusive classroom model. For a year participating teachers met monthly to discuss teaching strategies, share perspectives, and visit one another’s classrooms.
Alan Dosier is a sixth grade math teacher at Immokalee Middle. Last year he partnered with a teacher from Manatee and learned about several new methods for making mathematics more accessible to a diverse student body. This year, working with co-teacher and ESE specialist Maria Wrobleski, Dosier is putting these methods to work in his inclusive sixth grade math class. “Many of our students have audio-processing deficits, which means it is hard for them to listen and process what they are hearing,” explains Wrobleski. “So we are pairing our traditional instruction with visual and hands-on activities.” One example is developing graphic organizers in which students scan a new chapter and then construct a visual representation of the material so they get a preview of what’s ahead. The teachers are also developing study guides before tests, which all students have found helpful. “It’s great having the ESE kids in the classroom—some of them are more motivated than the other students. The regular kids have a lot to learn from them and the effort they bring to learning,” says Dosier.
Dosier and Wrobleski have also developed some alternative assessment methods to complement traditional textbook tests. “We’re using journals in which we ask students to write out the steps they took to solve a problem,” says Dosier. “We’re also using writing in other ways, like asking students to describe how they use mathematics at the grocery store, or other day-to-day tasks in their lives.”
Connecting Lessons Across Subject Areas
This new emphasis on writing in the mathematics classroom is also part of the Partners agenda, explains Scanlon. In addition to reinforcing literacy skills, it helps children make connections across disciplines. “Many of our kids have a hard time seeing connections—we think we can do more to help them with this,” she says. “So we are developing strategies that work for the ESE kids as well as the general education kids, and that work across classrooms.” (See the sidebar for examples.)
To reinforce connections across subject areas, the Partners program brought together teams of teachers to develop units with cross-cutting themes. Lynn Bartlett explains, “There are four of us on the team, and we have joint planning sessions where we try to integrate the themes of our work. For example, right now in my classroom we are reading Esperanza Rising, the story of a young girl from Mexico who migrates to the United States. In science the kids are studying migration patterns in butterflies—where they go to find food, to mate, to lay eggs. In geography they are using maps to track these migratory patterns. In math they are charting rates of growth and change.” The staff thinks that this integrated curriculum helps to reinforce concepts and build continuity for students. “I love the ‘aha!’ moments,” says Bartlett. “A kid says to me, ‘We just talked about this in science,’ and I say, ‘Exactly, all this knowledge works together.’”
To support the staff in their team teaching, Aguilar and her EDC colleagues visit Immokalee several times a year to develop instructional strategies that are effective with diverse groups of learners and in different subject areas. Last year the trainings emphasized how to analyze student work. “Too often teachers see scope and sequence—they emphasize covering a certain amount of material rather than attending to what students have mastered,” says Bartlett. “We are learning to take what students have mastered and what more they need to learn, and use that information to develop new lessons. So we are teaching not just for coverage but for mastery.” This year Aguilar’s training emphasized working with state standards in inclusive classrooms. “What do we really want our kids to come away with? What’s the big picture here?” explains Scanlon. “Cindy took us through a five-step learning cycle from engagement to assessment that the teachers found very helpful.”
While Aguilar was presenting her workshop last year, the ESE director for Collier County middle schools happened to be visiting the building and decided to sit in. “She appreciated what we were doing and said ‘This is great—why not do it for the all the middle schools in the county?’” explains Aguilar. “So we bumped up the training to include eight middle schools across the district.” This year those eight schools all sent teams of ESE and general education teachers to a three-day series on inclusive learning strategies. “By taking the program district-wide, we won’t lose the new knowledge and skills that teachers develop at any one school,” says Aguilar. “We can develop a leadership team in inclusive education right across the district.”
Originally published on April 1, 2004