RCMA receives the UnidosUS Affiliate Award for Advocacy for their work with the migrant community in Florida

An RCMA student paints her mother’s face during a family day to celebrate Mexican heritage. Photo by Julienne Gage.

By Julienne Gage, Senior Web Content Manager, ProgressReport.co

On a hot, steamy day in May, students at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association Wimauma Leadership Academy on Florida’s Gulf Coast gathered on campus with their parents for a Mexican cultural celebration. The day’s humidity did not stop them from painting Mexican and American flags on each other’s faces, or from marching around the schoolyard with handmade banners, masks, and instruments performing traditional Mexican music and shouting “Viva Mexico!”

It was a chance for these predominately migrant farmworker families to take a break from struggling to put food on the table and celebrate all who they are in a state where their community is often overshadowed by more historic Florida Latino populations such as Cubans, Venezuelans, and Puerto Ricans. It was a chance to play and to learn about how the school program could lead to a better, more integrated life for their children. And on this day, there was another cause for celebration. Eighth grade graduation was just around the corner and 10 of this year’s 34 graduates would be getting full-ride scholarships to Cristo Rey, a private Catholic high school in Tampa which exposes underprivileged youth to the professional world by giving them one-day-a-week, accredited internships at area businesses. Additionally, each teen will have the opportunity to try out a different internship for each of their four years of high school.

But getting them this far was no easy task. All across the nation, data shows students are falling behind proficiency in math and reading even before they hit high school, and that’s especially true of Latino students. According to 2017 data for eighth graders gathered from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 20% of Latinos were proficient in reading, compared to 45% among Whites, and in math, just 20% of Latinos were proficient, compared to 44% of Whites.

A student of RCMA’s dual-language charter school catches up with her homework in English and Spanish. Photo by Julienne Gage.

It’s easy to see how that could happen. Schools are overcrowded and underfunded, programs for English learners often fail to use best language acquisition practices, and in some cases, as is often the case among families in Wimauma, parents are either illiterate or don’t have the time and formal education to help tutor their children. Given this reality, UnidosUS’s Affiliate RCMA, the 2019 UnidosUS Affiliate Awardee for Advocacy, a network of Florida-based child care and education providers, has spent decades looking for ways to improve these outcomes. It began in the 1960s with a series of daycare centers for migrant families. There are now 70 such facilities across 21 counties in the state. In the late 1990s, RCMA began developing K-8 charter schools to better prepare students for high school.

“We’ve never had to institute a lottery system because we always had full classrooms with waiting lists,” says Haggett, whose Wimauma school takes about 38 kindergartners each year and gives priority, as written in their charter, to siblings of children already in the program.

A student works on his classroom laptop at RCMA K-8 charter school for children of migrant farmworkers in Florida. Photo by Julienne Gage.

Today, RCMA Wimauma is 99% Latino and offers 100% of its students free and reduced lunch because their families are at poverty or sub-poverty level, so RCMA offers what it refers to as “wraparound” services to ensure kids stay in school and parents are active in their education.

Because transportation in rural communities is often limited, RCMA has its own bus system that drives out to some of the most remote parts of the state to pick kids up and drop them off. It also arranges rides and tries to provide for parents with court dates and other major appointments. This makes it easier to get parents interested in their parent engagement classes, as well as adult literacy programs. Finally, students receive low-cost health services and free dental cleanings through a partnership with the Suncoast Community Health Center and a grant from UnidosUS.

Read the full article in the Progress Report.

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