“It is fun and stuff,” said Grecia Grajeda, 8, who has attended the program for three years and wants to be a teacher when she grows up.
“We build plenty of fun into the curriculum, but that doesn’t mean that learning isn’t accomplished as well,” said Maria Pestalardo, the program’s coordinator since 2004. “Most of the lessons we planned were practical and hands-on, but with an academic facet.”
Through the six-week program, up to 100 students are bused to Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Johnson City.
Their days of fun and learning begin at 9 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The kids attend classes where they learn English, reading, math, sciences, art, theater, physical education and English as a Second Language, said Pestalardo.
“They go to the pool and have field trips,” she said. “We offer free books, supplies, meals, transportation, health and dental care.”
Among guest speakers are doctors, nurses, dentists, storytellers, engineers from Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, bankers, policemen, fire fighters, leadership trainers, and representatives of the volunteer group Boys to Men.
Grecia is happy to tell what she enjoys most.
“I liked math,” she said, “and we went to Rocky Mount. We made little candles and we went to the swimming pool.”
Aaron Ecay, a University of Pennsylvania student and MEP recruiter, said he believes the program offers stability to students, some of whom deal with poverty and immigration issues.
“I think it serves to allay somewhat the fears that some of our students have with regards to immigration,” he said. “For various reasons, their lives can be unstable, and it’s hard to predict when their family will have to pick up and move.”
To Ecay, this means MEP workers have to be sensitive, yet firm.
“The challenge becomes balancing the desire to show compassion for the hardship one imagines them facing and that of maintaining authority and control, which will benefit them in the long run,” he said.
Most kids in the program attend public school year-round. With their parents moving from job to job, it is hard for them to attend regularly. The program catches them up on what they may have missed.
Grecia likes the MEP so much that she tells a visitor, “I wish I could go year-round.” She plans to go to college in the U.S. before returning to Mexico for a few years. Pestalardo said one goal of the MEP is to help more migrant students meet school standards, which will help increase the high school graduation rate.
The program also extends its services beyond the summer. MEP enrolls children coming into schools, helping them understand bus routes. It offers translation and interpretation services for both kids and their families. MEP also distributes school supplies and attempts to keep parents actively involved in their children’s schooling.
Tutoring programs and sports activities are set up throughout the year to keep MEP involved in the children’s lives.
ETSU’s program is co-sponsored by the State Department of Education and has been rated one of the best in the Eastern United States, the best in Tennessee, and was presented as a model program at the 2007 national MEP director’s conference in Washington, D.C., Pestalardo said.
The national program was created in 1966 when Congress recognized migrant children as a disadvantaged group living under conditions that greatly increased their educational needs.
MEP is authorized under Title 1, Part C of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
When the ETSU program started in 2002, Pestalardo said, it was “a baby project,” with few people involved. Over the last few years more people have become active.
“There are so many people working on behalf of this program that it is unimaginable,” Pestalardo said, “from state and federal agencies to school systems, professionals, institutions, volunteers and families.”
Many students from ETSU and other universities, like Ecay, have also helped as teaching assistants or as volunteers.
“I think that an experience like MEP can change one’s perspective, make one aware of other cultures, other ways of life,” Ecay said.
“When college students work with us, they get involved with another part of the society that tends to be silent,” Pestalardo said. “If they are learning Spanish they are exposed to the Hispanic culture and in doing so their Spanish skills improve.”
Since its conception, ETSU’s MEP has grown, but numbers are not the main objective. “We have to focus on those students who need the most help,” Pestalardo said. “We prefer quality more than quantity.”
First published in El Nuevo Erwin Record