ONTARIO — Serving about one-third of Ontario School District’s nearly 2,400 students, the Ontario Migrant Education Program has become a “model program” for other schools in the state, Superintendent Nicole Albisu said at the Ontario School Board of Trustees meeting on Nov. 18.
In the 2017-18 school year, the migrant program’s Priority for Service graduation rate was 100% while the non-PFS rate was 93%.
Priority for Service is a distinction for students who both see an interruption of their school year and are failing, or at most risk of failing to meet certain state standards.
Every November, the Migrant Education Programs from Oregon schools meet for a conference in Salem, many awards were given out to Ontario representatives, including Xochitl Fuhriman-Ebert (Advocate of the Year), Carolina Gomez (Employee of the Year) and Alejandra Arizmendi (Student of the Year).
But for the first time, a Title I-C Director of the Year was named, with Ontario’s Anabel Ortiz-Chavolla receiving the inaugural honor.
“To be honored like that, it was very emotional, too. It’s close to my heart. It’s where I come from,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “Being from a migrant family, it’s one of the reasons I’m here today.”
Ortiz-Chavolla’s history in migrant work started long before she was born.
Her grandparents had been migrating between Texas and Idaho for seasonal work. When Ortiz-Chavolla and her family joined them in 1993-94, she said her grandparents had been doing that migrant work for about 40 years.
For a long time, Ortiz-Chavolla said her father had kept their family in Mexico for as long as it was economically feasible.
“We were out of the loop,” she said. “But my grandparents, my aunts and uncles would migrate between Texas and Idaho since the seventies.”
When Ortiz-Chavolla finished secondary school, her father left the family to work in Arkansas and help the forestry service plant trees while sending money back to the family.
“There were some tough times,” she said. “I remember being raised in poverty. So we had to just make do with whatever you had, or whatever you could get. There’s a lot of IOU systems in the small little farm markets in Mexico. We used to get groceries and we would owe them until my dad could send us money. So it was a very humbling beginning.”
When they were no longer able to afford to live away from their father, Ortiz-Chavolla, her mother and her sister met with him and the family landed in Payette.
“It was quite an eye-opening experience,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “It was very different. Not just the food, the language, the people. Just even how our family that we knew, they were different here. Their mentality was shifted. When we would see them at home, it was all about happiness and family time. Here it was all about work, work, work. My world kind of shifted at that point.”
Living in the old Payette Labor Camps, she said her family’s living quarters were about twice the size of her current office, including two beds, the fridge, stove and benches.
“That was my first experience of this is life in the U.S.,” Ortiz-Chavolla said.
A self-proclaimed “terrible cook,” she said she switched places with her mom when they lived at the camp. Ortiz-Chavolla went out to work in the fields as her mother stayed at home to cook and take care of Ortiz-Chavolla’s sister, who has epilepsy.
With her grandparents’ strong work ethic, she said she remembers the family taking on many side jobs at other farms.
“We had long hours,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “I remember working from sun-up to sun-down.”
Still a young teenager, she was enrolled in Payette High School to start her American education after working with a migrant recruiter. Ortiz-Chavolla said her parents really were a driving force behind her entrance into the American school system as they valued their children getting an education.
“Had my parents not pushed me so much, I probably would have given up on some points,” she said. “It was hard work in academics. It was hard work with trying to make friends without the English language as a tool. And it was physically demanding to do the work outside of school.”
Getting an education
After leaving Payette, Ortiz-Chavolla graduated from Mission High School in Texas, which had a graduating class of 741 students with 99% of students being bilingual Hispanic/Latino students and a strong Migrant Education Program.
The Mission High School program is where Ortiz-Chavolla said she gets a lot of her ideas for things to do at Ontario School District, including things like migrant student recognition celebrations in the spring and handing out dictionaries to families at the start of the year.
“There’s a lot of things that I owe to them,” she said. “Not only their tutoring and their guidance, but also some of their ideas I took with me.”
In high school, Ortiz-Chavolla said she originally wanted to be a nurse. But that dream quickly died after going to an emergency room for an assignment and seeing the amount of blood that comes up in that job.
“I always had teaching in my back pocket from the teachers that inspired me,” she said.
Her family sold their home in Texas and moved to Fruitland so that she could go to school in the Treasure Valley. For a little while, they had housing at Purdam’s Produce.
Robin Purdum actually drove Ortiz-Chavolla to Boise State University to take her to the admissions office.
“She made it possible for me to see myself on campus,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “I’ve thanked her many times for that. She forced me to set my foot on a university campus. And then we went to Baskin-Robbins and had ice cream. I still remember that day.”
Ortiz-Chavolla went to Treasure Valley Community College before attending Boise State University for her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree. She got her Administrator’s License from Lewis and Clark College.
After graduating from college, Ortiz-Chavolla worked at Aiken Elementary School as a teacher for six years and was also associate principal there and at Alameda Elementary.
“I wouldn’t change that path for anything,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “That trajectory taught me everything I know. All the people that I’ve worked with for all the years have taught me nuggets that I still use that wisdom.”
In 2009, she was assigned to the job of migrant director.
“I get to look at the need and design and program or design a system that can meet that need, hunt it and make it happen,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “I like that about my job. That I can change things and empower students.”
Having been through a strong migrant program in Mission, Texas and a smaller one in Payette, she said she has both been in and worked with a wide spectrum of migrant programs and that experience has been invaluable to her current job.
“That really helps me understand, when I talk to smaller programs, I understand what they mean,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “Maybe they just have money for a recruiter and maybe a few school supplies at the beginning of the year. So trying to be creative about, ‘So can we find a different grant?’ ‘Can we supplement that?’ ‘Can we ask foundations in your city?’”
A different world
When she took over the migrant program at Ontario, the program was very different.
According to Ortiz-Chavolla, the State of Oregon only started tracking the graduation rates of migrant students in recent years. So any data the school has on past years wouldn’t “be clean.” While she doesn’t know the exact graduation rate of migrant students when she started 10 years ago, Ortiz-Chavolla said it was much lower than it is now.
With the No Child Left Behind Act still in place in 2009, she said the funding for the program had been largely frozen since 2002.
“Let’s pretend Oregon had ten-thousand migrant students at the time, so that never shifted in the law,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “So if ten years later, we had doubled our size, we were still getting funding for ten-thousand.”
In 2009, she said the migrant program at Ontario School District had four employees, herself, two recruiters and a data specialist.
“We did a lot of things ourselves. Well, we still do, but we did a lot more hands-on,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “... Between the four of us, we had to figure out how to provide services to families with minimal funding. So what we did is we adopted the model of being a big program without funds.”
This included doing a lot of cooking and cleaning for their meetings and events.
“We did a lot with very little,” she said. “We thought about how we need to service them in a big way with few resources. So everybody has to work super extra hard. And we did, for a lot of years.”
By doing a lot of work themselves, Ortiz-Chavolla said the migrant program saved every penny they could for many years. Some of that money was used for things like increasing the number of students who were able to attend the Oregon Migrant Leadership Institute camp at Oregon State University from eight to 20.
“We’ve always tried to increase that student access,” she said. “Because that’s what’s going to be worth it at the end. That’s our goal. Our goal is them and for them to see themselves pursuing careers. Whatever it is they want to do, technical, whatever it is they have in mind, pushing them to that goal.”
With the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Acts in 2015, Ortiz-Chavolla said the schools have been able to get better funding for their migrant programs.
“We’ve slowly seen an increase. So that’s good,” she said. “So we can grow the program and provide more support and services.”
She said the migrant program has seen an influx of funding, but that’s something that only happened within the past two years.
Now the Migrant Education Program at Ontario School District has 10 employees.
“Imagine doing this job with three or four people, who are not experts. Now we have ten, who are experts. It’s pretty cool to see,” Ortiz-Chavolla said.
Walking the same path
During the Nov. 18 board meeting, Albisu said Ortiz-Chavolla “connects with students in a way that only someone who has walked in their shoes can.”
While most of the migrant students at Ontario School District work with the staff at their individual schools, Ortiz-Chavolla said that she works with about seven families per year who come from out of the country.
But she said there are still many parts of her job that she is having to learn on the fly.
Over the past two years, Ortiz-Chavolla said she is also seeing students come from Mexico by themselves. These students were born in the U.S., but their family left 10 to 15 years ago to go back to Mexico. Now teenagers, their parents tell them to return to the U.S. to get their education.
“Okay, who are you? Who are you staying with? Do you have resources to get by?” she said. “... I am able to relate to a certain extent, but there’s also a learning curve.”
The Ontario Migrant Education Program also helps with many refugee families, and while she said she is unable to speak other languages like Somali (Ontario School District encompasses students who speak 17 different languages) she said she is still able to relate to many of the families and empathize with them.
“It applies, what I’ve lived through, you can carry through any culture, any ethnicity,” Ortiz-Chavolla said.
Everything for the students
Through everything that’s changed over the years, Ortiz-Chavolla quickly jumped on the one thing she’s most proud of during her 10 years as the Migrant Education Program Director: the students.
“They’ve taught me that it doesn’t matter what challenges you have, if they set their mind to it, if they have the tools, they can do it,” she said. “We have great examples of students who have overcome significant challenges and they wouldn’t be where they are if it wasn’t through the support they received through our program and their parents. I think I speak for the whole team when I say that everything that we do is for them.”
And making sacrifices for the students is something that Ortiz-Chavolla recognizes is necessary. She said she thinks all the time about the help that she’s received along the way, from Purdum driving her to Boise State, to Melissa Williams teaching her the ropes when she first took over the migrant director position, to her parents making countless sacrifices to make sure she got an education, Ortiz-Chavolla said she knows that she wouldn’t be where she is if it wasn’t for those around her.
“I can’t even put it into words what they gave up for us to be here,” she said. “My mom, I think she wishes deep inside that she could go back home. And she gets homesick. Her mother is back home, aging. They made a lot of hard choices that they made for us. So we have a better future. And I’m grateful for that. And I remind my kids of that, too.”