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Migrant ed is the

October 09, 2001

heart and soul of state parent council president

By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

The first day that Elsa Hernandez's children went to El Centro's Washington Elementary, all of them, including her, were crying.

This was more than the typical first-day jitters. Hernandez, a Mexican native, and her husband were migrant workers. Their children, who had been studying in Mexicali, were entering an American school for the first time.

"They cried so much and I cried, too, because it's different. They don't speak English and I don't speak English (at the time)," Hernandez said.

It was at that point Hernandez found out about the program that would become her life's passion.

"I went to the school and the teachers told me about the migrant program," Hernandez said.

Not only did Hernandez's four children participate in the migrant education program in school, Hernandez joined the local parent advisory council and for the past 15 years she's been on the state parent advisory council.

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This year, Hernandez, who lives in El Centro, was elected president of the state council.

While her English isn't perfect, her passion for migrants and their children comes across loud and clear.

"This program for me is my life because I love it so much. I work very, very hard for this program," the 60-year-old Hernandez said.

"Our goal is to bring better quality education to migrant kids because they need it," she said.

As president, she travels around the state and country talking to migrant parents, students and educators about the program, what it offers and how to improve it.

Between her frequent travels, she's organizing a Los Angeles conference in March for 1,300 migrant parents to give the families as much information as possible about how to get the best educations for their children.

The challenges to a migrant student's education are many, Hernandez said.

As migrant parents move from town to town and state to state following the crops and the seasons, their children must continually adapt and readapt to new schools, teachers and peers.

"Switching schools causes them to go down," Hernandez said.

The kids often feel shy when arriving at new schools. That shyness, Hernandez says, has negative effects on their education.

Not only do many students have a language barrier to overcome, their families don't have the resources other kids do.

The migrant program pulls these kids aside and gives them support educationally and emotionally. In addition to leadership conferences and specialized instruction, migrant ed provides referrals for health services.

Hernandez wants to give migrant students and their parents a sense of pride in themselves and their work.

"I tell the kids never feel bad," Hernandez said. "Never down your head."

Jaime Silva, director of Imperial County Office of Education's migrant education department, sees similarities between migrant ed and regular education.

"I think we're all looking at the same target, school districts and migrant education. We're all looking at the same target, but maybe we're looking at that target from different angles," Silva said.

"But ultimately, our goal is to improve student achievement," Silva said.

"I'm so proud to know that we have a parent from Imperial County that represents our county at the state level and that she represents the state of California," Silva said.

"It's a major accomplishment," he added.

Not only is Hernandez empowering parents by informing them of the educational system, she brings hope and encouragement, Silva said.

Hernandez is living proof that it can be done. Her four children all graduated from Central Union High School and her three surviving kids — one died — went on to earn college degrees, too.

"I know it's tough to learn about education," Hernandez said. "Education is the right track."

Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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