In Idaho’s Magic Valley, summer school a break for hardworking migrant teens

Teacher Monica Villegas — an exchange teacher from Mexico — instructs students at the Twin Falls School District's migrant summer school in June.
Teacher Monica Villegas — an exchange teacher from Mexico — instructs students at the Twin Falls School District's migrant summer school in June. TIMES-NEWS

Edgar Iribe missed two days of migrant summer school in June, but not because of sickness.

The 13-year-old was picking rocks in Twin Falls agricultural fields. He woke up at 5 a.m. and labored from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“It’s usually better when you go in the morning,” he said. Otherwise, it gets too hot and it’s easy to be sunburned.

“It’s very tiring,” said Edgar, who wears long sleeves, long pants, closed-toe shoes and a bandanna over his head. “Sometimes, you get blisters.”

Across the Magic Valley, many migrant teenagers spend the summer working in fields — often, picking up rocks and getting farmlands ready for crops. At the Twin Falls School District’s migrant summer school, you don’t have to look far to find them.

Last summer, Carmen Castillo — one of the district’s three migrant liaisons — went to work with teens in the fields to get a sense of what it’s like and how she can help. She experienced how hard and tiring the work is.

When Edgar picks up rocks and throws them into the loader, they cut into his hands. He wears gloves, but they make his hands sweaty. After work and a shower, all he wants to do is sleep, but he and his parents force themselves to stay awake until it’s time to go to bed.

Some younger children go to help their parents in the fields but aren’t paid because employers don’t fill out paperwork on them, migrant liaison Lucinda Padilla said. Sometimes, children wait in parents’ cars until they’re done working.

Either way, children encounter sun and chemical exposure, Castillo said. And children who aren’t working are often home alone or caring for younger siblings.

The U.S. Department of Labor outlines requirements for agricultural employment. Children who are 13 — like Edgar — are allowed to work at a nonhazardous job outside school hours, but only at a farm where their parent works or with written permission from parents. Children can work any job on their parents’ farm at any age.

Children younger than 16 can’t work in hazardous agricultural occupations. A long list includes prohibitions such as operating a tractor, corn picker, grain combine or other motorized equipment, and handling or applying toxic chemicals.

And there are restrictions on the number of hours, number of consecutive work days and time of year that preteens can work.

Edgar’s father drives trucks at a dairy, and his mother occasionally works in a Twin Falls farmer’s fields. Edgar, his brother and a cousin work alongside their mother. It’s Edgar’s first summer picking rocks.

But in past summers, he helped hoe old roots out of bean fields for about two weeks. “Sometimes, it’s all wet and you have to wear boots,” Edgar said.

When he missed migrant summer school in early June, he was helping clear rocks from three fields in two days.

But he decided to return to migrant summer school because his younger brothers wanted to go. “They wouldn’t go without me,” Edgar said.

Students went on field trips to the College of SOuthern Idaho’s outdoor challenge course, Zoo Boise, Twin Falls City Park, KMVT televion, a radio station and downtown Twin Falls.

He didn’t plan to go back to work after summer school ended because, after 11 years in Idaho, the family planned to move June 28 to Fresno, Calif., to pick fruit. They’re moving to be with family, Edgar said.

“I think it’s going to be a harder life,” the soccer-loving teen said, and he expected more gang violence. He won’t go out as much as he does here in Idaho. But Edgar said they’ll live at a ranch, secluded from city life. And California has a lot more to do for fun.

Migrant summer school students Dulce Prieto, 14, and brother Jose Prieto, 13, work at a dairy.

Our mom is a single mom, so we had to help her.

Dulce Prieto, 14

Dulce, who has braces on her bottom teeth, has worked every Saturday and Sunday for about a year feeding calves.

“Some are too noisy because they get hungry fast,” she said.

After a long day at work, her feet ache. “The boots that you wear are heavy.”

During winter, Jose milked cows after school. “My feet get cold,” he said.

Once migrant summer school ended, the siblings planned to return to the dairy. They have two siblings — ages 4 and 10 — who are too young to work.

Dulce, who wants to be a nurse, will be a freshman at Twin Falls High School in the fall. Jose wants to create YouTube videos for a living and is going into eighth grade at Vera C. O’Leary Middle School.

Edgar also has plans.

He’s interested in a medical field because health workers, he said, make lots of money and get to help people.

“I think doctors are nice, too,” he said.

Enrollment grows

at migrant summer school

With paper cutters and tape, Jose Juarez and his middle school peers made marble mazes on a June afternoon. But once migrant summer school ended, 14-year-old Jose would labor in Hazelton bean fields again.

Yes, the Twin Falls School District’s migrant summer school is about writing and math. But it’s also about not picking rocks or feeding calves.

At least for three short weeks.

The district’s annual June program helps fill academic gaps for children who move frequently, and organizers say it also keeps them out of agricultural fields. But when summer school ends, many migrant students head back to work.

This is Jose’s second summer of farm work, clocking in from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last year, he earned $2,000 and gave it to his mother.

“I don’t like staying at home doing nothing,” the Robert Stuart Middle School student said. “I like being out in the fields.”

The district’s migrant program, however, aims to help students finish their educations and find more stable lifestyles.

Though the number of migrant families has dropped across Idaho, enrollment in Twin Falls’ migrant summer school rose sharply this year.

Normally about 100 students sign up for the summer school, which the district has offered for more than 20 years. This year, 160 registered.

Parents asked the district to expand summer school to include middle-schoolers, said Abby Montano, migrant coordinator for the Twin Falls district, so their children weren’t home alone. This is the second year that middle-schoolers were included, and their numbers doubled to 26 students.