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The invisible children

Ever, Alejandro and Virgilio, the Moreno brothers, are part of a family that has to work in the fields to make ends meet. It's been nearly impossible for them to stay in school and achieve their academic goals.
23 Sep 2016 – 10:21 AM EDT
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From City to City, From School to School

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These underage migrant workers are facing difficulties finishing school

It is a usual summer morning for students enjoying their vacations. Many take advantage of their spare time to play far away from the schoolbooks, and sleep until late in the morning. For 14-year-old Virgilio Moreno and 16-year-old Alejandro Moreno, summer vacations are totally different, though. With their father and a group of men, at seven o’clock every day, they are up and ready to go to work in the fields.

My team and I witness each step these youngsters take. Soon after they awake, they start a journey that takes almost an hour, on fog-covered mountain roads. Somewhere along the route, they stop for a short while at a small store to grab something to eat. Once they reach the harvest field, some place outside of Hendersonville, North Carolina, the Moreno brothers know exactly what their shores will be.

They inspect some sweet peppers on the three-acre field and determine they are not yet ready to be harvested. With very few words, since they fear and are not used to cameras and lights, they tell me that the sweet peppers are still wet. They will have to wait at least two hours for them to dry so they will not rot when they pack them. If they pick them wet, they would lose merchandise, time and money in a job that is not well paid to begin with, but that offers them enough money to cover their basic needs.

Alejandro, who has to spend six or more hours under the sun, says: “Ever since I was seven years old I have been earning enough to buy my own clothes and shoes so that my parents don’t have to spend money on them.” It all depends on the quantity of produce they can harvest.


The Morenos are not the only migrant students working in the area. There are others — mainly younger ones — who attend the “Boys and Girls Club,” where they receive a very important academic support side by side to the recreational activities provided by the club.

Here, Luis Acosta, a teacher, helps them so they can achieve the same level of the nonimmigrant students. It is a known fact that migrant students fall back in their academic studies compared to their fellow students. The migrant families stay about three months in one place, but when the harvest time is over, they move to another city looking for new job opportunities. This implies a constant change of schools.

“I hardly understand anything at school because I don’t spend the whole year there and I don’t receive the same instruction the others do,” says Virgilio Moreno every time he has to move from Immokalee in Florida, where they spend three months harvesting tomatoes and vegetables, to Hendersonville in North Carolina, where they are located right now.


Their fear, and the fear of many other youngsters in this same condition, is that they might have to repeat the school year, because while in one city they are taught under one type of academic system, when they get to another city, everything changes. But it can get worse. Ever, Virgilio’s older sister, could not graduate from high school for she was missing some credits.

“I took seven credits in total in my first year and I was missing half. For my second year, I was missing two credits, but I did not have the time to make up for them. I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch up,” Ever says, while she sorts tomatoes and packs them in a box at the place she works.

Many youngsters like Ever wind up working the fields when they cannot get their high school diploma. But she does not give up. Two times a week, with the help from a teacher assigned to her by the Migrante organization in Hendersonville, she prepares so that she can take the State exam and obtain a diploma equivalent to that of a high school diploma. She is missing just two tests and hopes that by November she can obtain the title that will allow her to leave this packaging job, a job that she shares with her mother Surgey Moreno.


Today, in fact, Surgey Moreno has had to take a leave from her work in order to enroll Virgilio and Alejandro in the school program. For this purpose, she goes to El Centro, an organization that helps migrant families with a process that is quite complex for them, even more so, given that they don’t speak English.

Maria Cruz, the enrollment coordinator at El Centro, helps parents with all the paperwork required for the enrollment (birth certificate, proof of place of residency, IRS filings, vaccination certificates…). Surgey has them all and can enroll her sons in the school. Not all the families have all their paperwork ready, and students are held back in the school system even more.


Three weeks later, we went back so that we could shot a video of Virgilio and Alejandro at the beginning of their school year. A lot more relaxed than the last time in front of the cameras, they tell me that school for them is a big challenge. And this school year has many challenges, for when they move from one city to another, it is like starting from scratch.

I shall shortly be telling you how the Moreno brothers are doing at school, the barriers they are up against, and if they are getting help so that they can achieve their goals at school. I will also let you know what is happening with their work as harvesters in the field.

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The first day at school

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The Moreno brothers start the school year without knowing whether they will be able to finish it.

Finally, the day arrived. Virgilio and Alejandro Moreno are of two minds, as always when each school year begins. They are nervous because their parents move around a lot, finding farm work, and this sets them back compared to the other students at school.

This time, they are going to attend school in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Virgilio is starting ninth grade and Alejandro, tenth. Today they have Math, Science, World History and English.

At noon, they have an appointment with teacher Areli Perez. She is a counselor at Henderson High and assists migrant students, to try to fill in the knowledge gaps left by their moving around. Despite this help, Alejandro has already repeated a grade, and he says that if it happens again he may drop out.

The teacher explains why these difficulties arise.

“While they are learning to multiply in North Carolina, in Florida they are teaching them to divide, and that is a major hurdle for these kids to overcome’.

Today is the first PTA meeting at school. The auditorium fills up gradually, and there are not many Hispanic faces. They have to choose between attending the meeting or putting food on the table.

As Surgey Moreno, the boys’ mother, who works at a packing plant, there are not many options: “I don’t speak enough English to get another kind of work, and I don’t have the education to get a better job, anyway”.

She says that her limited English also keeps her from helping her sons with their homework. Plus she often has to work for over 12 hours and, when she gets home, she barely has time to prepare supper.

Ever Moreno, her eldest daughter, works with her. The last time we saw her, she was studying to get her high-school diploma (GED). She had to drop out because she couldn’t fill in the academic gaps left by changing schools all the time, but after two years of preparation she received a phone call that will change her life. She passed the last test she had pending, and got her accreditation. This is a great achievement. Many youth in her situation leave school and begin working full-time harvesting crops.

It’s clear to Ever that studying is the way to succeed. That is why she will begin studying cosmetology. She will take this next new step in her life when her family moves from North Carolina to Immokalee, Florida, following the last harvest. We will talk about this, and about how Virgilio and Alejandro’s academic program will change, in our next post.

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Back to Florida: Starting Over Again

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This is the way a relocation affects the Moreno brothers’ cycle of schooling

It is time for the Moreno family to leave. Like every year, when the harvest is over in Hendersonville, North Carolina, the Morenos travel to Immokalee in Florida.

As he packs his belongings, Alejandro, one of the brothers, comments that he is tired of loading up all his things every three or four months to take them from one place to another.

Surgey, their mother, has another concern. She has to get together all the papers she needs to register Virgilio and Alejandro in school when they get to Immokalee. And she is afraid that, when they get there, things will be more complicated. Some friends have told her that this year there are more requirements to register migrant students.

Ever, the eldest sister, is the most excited about the trip. She is looking forward to beginning cosmetology school soon, after having finished her high-school equivalency diploma.

The family sets out on a long drive, nearly 12 hours, and when they arrive they rest for the remainder of the day.

The next morning, Ever begins her arrangements to register at school, and comes up against an obstacle: the high prices of education. “I don’t have money to study yet. I’m waiting to see whether they can help me with a scholarship”.

Ever’s dream begins to fade away. The process to raise the money she needs to finance her studies may take several months. But she decides to continue her efforts.

But there is always an unforeseen hurdle. “Now there is a problem. They are telling me that, if Alejandro doesn’t have all his credits, they won’t want him in school next year”, she says. Alejandro is in tenth grade now, but maybe he won’t be able to get into eleventh.

Many migrant students face situations like this, because – when they move from one town to another – the academic curriculum changes and they don’t study the same subject matter.

This is an unexpected blow for Alejandro. If he can’t go to school, he tells us, his fate would be to keep doing field work. He adds that his dreams would be ruined: “I wanted to get the diploma and give it to my mother”.

In the next article, we will see whether Alejandro Moreno and his sister were able to overcome these obstacles and continue their education.

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Different standards despite the Common Core

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The Common Core does little for the children of agricultural workers

The academic future remains doubtful for Alejandro Moreno, the elder of two brothers attending public school in Immokalee, Florida. Surgey Moreno, their mother, told us that the institution where her son studies has told her that Alejandro does not have enough credits to begin 11 th grade next year.

They told her that one option students have is to enter an alternate school, where they could help him catch up with the other students at his school. But Mrs. Moreno is sure that this option would not solve her son’s problem.

The Morenos, like most migrant workers’ families, travel from one town to another during the year to perform different farm work. They move back and forth between Hendersonville and Immokalee. This means that their sons have to spend part of the school year in North Carolina and the rest in Florida. That is why Surgey feels that her sons’ academic problem would always be there.

Both the boys and their parents tell about the academic differences between the two states. However, these differences ought not to exist. According to Karla Hernández, President of United Teachers of Dade, in Florida, under the academic standards known as Common Core, students should have access to the same contents.

According to Hernández, the intention of Common Core was precisely to avoid situations like Alejandro’s. These school standards were developed to establish the knowledge that each student should have in their basic subjects, and should be compatible in all states (43 states – including North Carolina and Florida, the District of Columbia and four territories have voluntarily adopted these standards.

However, some state legislatures have made decisions that undermine this intention. “States have retained the right to decide what books they use, which companies (textbook publishers) they use and what exams to use”, says Hernández, “and doing this has removed many of the properties of what was supposed to be the Common Core”.

The result is that the standards in Florida (which has its own ‘Florida Standards’) are different from those in North Carolina. That is why Alejandro says it will be very difficult for him to continue with certain subjects, when he moves from one state to another. In North Carolina, they teach him four subjects. In Florida, seven. That is why, in Immokalee, they told Surgey that her son doesn’t have enough credits, and will not be able to pass on to the next year.

If that happens, there are not many options for Alejandro. He tells us that he is afraid to be left in Limbo. However, probably he will have to simply work full-time with his parents, and see his pathway to success cut off.

In the next post, I will tell you how his situation is evolving and what is happening with his siblings.

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Alejandro is facing the challenge of getting into eleventh grade

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Not speaking English limits how much migrant parents can help their children study

For millions of people, Christmas is a time for celebrating. However, the Moreno family – like many other immigrants in the United States – had a Christmas of uncertainty about the future. In this case, about their sons’ academic performance. During the holiday break, they have had more questions than answers.

Virgilio Moreno, the younger brother, still has academic problems because they had to move from one town to another and to another school because of their parents’ work – is not keeping up with his ninth-grade classmates. Alejandro, now in tenth grade, doesn’t know if he can get into eleventh, because he doesn’t have the credits required to pass tenth grade.

Even though the school – Immokalee High – already told them what might happen, Surgey Moreno, the boys’ Mother, says that one of the main problems she has faced is the lack of timely information in their language, so she can help them. Surgey does not speak English.

Another factor that doesn’t help solve her sons’ problems is that the town of Immokalee, in Florida, does not have specialist services for migrant students. For instance, there is no home tutoring, which they get when they are in North Carolina.

The Morenos say they just have to wait and go back to class, to see their most recent report cards. They know, from experience, that their grades won’t be very good. Whenever they change schools, their grades go down, because the contents are usually different. But they want to keep studying. And they are looking forward to it, especially in Alejandro’s case. If he can’t get into the eleventh grade, he will have to go to work in the fields full-time.

In the next post, I will give you more details.

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Victims of bullying

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An unexpected obstacle on the Morenos brothers’ Road to Success

We had to return to the home of the Moreno family in the town of Immokalee, Florida, to document their sons’ progress at school. However, something told me that not everything was all right. They returned fewer of my phone calls. The progress we had made in front of the cameras with the brothers was backsliding. Even so, my cameraman, Martín Guzmán, and I decided to visit them at home. We ran the risk of finding no one home, but we needed to check on whether everything was all right.

When we got there, we ran into Surgey Moreno, the boys’ Mother, just leaving home. She welcomed us warmly, as usual, but seemed a bit sad. This confirmed my suspicions. She told us that her sons no longer wanted to continue with the program. This is always a risk when you do television, but their reason for withdrawing was perfectly understandable.

The family was being accused of receiving money for participating in the program. The Mother says that these accusations have come from friends, from people who saw them in the street, and even from classmates at school. This situation was rankling with them because they have always taken part on a volunteer basis, for no reason than to show, through their stories, the academic and personal difficulties facing migrant families like them.

We closed the cycle with the Moreno family and headed West. There we met two twins, Rosa and Raquel Anguiano. They live with their Mother, Teresa Fernández, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. They are in tenth grade. Like the Moreno family, they also travel from one state to another to work at the latest harvest. However, their mother made a decision that has affected their household income, but is helping her daughters. Now, they only move to work in the fields when classes end.

They made this decision after undergoing a bitter experience. In ninth grade, the girls had to leave school before the end of the school year. The girls fell behind and now it is harder for them to catch up with the rest of their classmates.

Both sisters want to go to college, so they have to keep their grades up, complete all the subjects required by the academic curriculum, and know enough to pass their exams.

Next time, I will tell you about the resources they can access to make up for the classes they lost, and whether the twins can overcome the obstacles that are standing in their way.

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