Salinas, CA – The early morning fog hangs low over a strawberry field near highway 68 in Salinas. As field workers get out of their cars, Alejandra Valadez and her team move in. They have to move fast to reach the workers before they start picking. Workers get paid by the box. "So the more boxes they make the more money they get at the end of the day, and if we're taking up their time, they don't have enough time to make up boxes," said Valadez.
Valadez and her team work for the federally funded Migrant Education program at the Monterey County Office of Education. They're looking for migrant, out of school youth. That's anyone, regardless of immigration status, between the ages of 16 and 21 who is not in school, doesn't have a high school diploma or GED, and has moved for agricultural work within the last three years. Recruiter Miguel Contreras quickly finds one young man who qualifies for the program. "This guy that I registered, he got here this year from Mexico. He got here in May, so he's new. So he's a little bit scared about giving information," said Contreras. It's moments like this where Contreras can really connect with the workers. "I tell them, you know what, I was working strawberry too. But now I have this job, and you can do the same thing," said Contreras. For years his family migrated every six months between Mexico and the U.S. When they finally settled in Salinas, Contreras was in high school. But he dropped out to earn some money picking strawberries. "I wanted to buy a car and just have fun. You know, when you are 17, 18 years old, that's why," said Contreras.
But most of the out of school youth in the fields work out of necessity. Rosa Coronado is the Director for Migrant Education in the Monterey Area, "it is difficult because their primary purpose for being here is sustenance. It's to pay the rent, it's to pay bills, it's to send money back home and to support families." She says identifying who can use their services is only half the battle. "It's providing the actual services that we find challenging because typically our youth are working all hours of the daylight. So as soon as the sun goes up their working and they don't go home until the sun goes down. So that presents a really tough challenge in how do we serve them?"
So the Migrant Ed office holds educational programs at nights and on weekends, and even in mobile classrooms near the fields. The idea is to get these kids back on a path to a diploma or GED. "But the long term goal is to get them into a better work environment via education or vocational training," said Coronado.
Back in the strawberry field, workers start rolling out the carts where they will stack their boxes of strawberries. Alejandra Valadez knows that means it's time to go. "It seems like we weren't able to catch everybody," said Valadez. They'll be back. The Migrant Ed workers spend most of their year in fields, warehouses and flea markets trying to track down people who qualify for their programs. Miguel Contreras was recruited while picking strawberries. After three months in the fields, he says he was eager to get back to school. "It's really hard working here in strawberry, really hard," said Contreras.
In the 2009-2010 school year, recruiters got more than 2,700 out of school youth into an educational or vocational program, and 55 earned a diploma or GED.