Originally created 07/12/98

Schools attract migrants



AIKEN -- Florian Rayes knew the keys to survival were at his fingertips, yet difficult to grasp.

Moving to a strange land with a challenging language that he could write a little, but not yet speak.

Seeing his mother cry as he packed what he had in a duffel bag. Knowing it would be what seemed an eternity before he'd see his sisters again -- all for a nine-letter word many Americans take for granted.

Education.

As he tapped out words on a computer, the smile that blanketed his face told a story the Spanish-speaking boy couldn't utter in English: One day he would return to Mexico and carry with him a treasure no amount of money could buy -- a high-school diploma.

Florian is one of 123 participants enrolled in Aiken County's migrant education program, which serves children in Aiken, Edgefield and Saluda counties.

He is what program coordinators call a five-year resident student, which means he has established residence with a relative and will live in the area for at least five years.

Other children cross state and county lines as their fathers move from field to field harvesting South Carolina crops.

"Education brought me here," Florian said through an interpreter, his friend Christian Hernandez. "My family, I miss. Opportunity here."

A year ago, the 15-year-old ninth-grader, now living in North Augusta, left Mexico with his uncle, who butchers meat at Shapiro Packing Plant in Augusta.

In his short time here, Florian's teachers say he is progressing well, despite difficulties coming from the language barrier, which schools across South Carolina are scrambling to shatter.

In the four weeks he's been in the summer program, his math and English skills have soared. He's even squeaked out a few perfect scores on his 20-minute computer-assisted lessons he takes twice a day.

The halls of J.D. Lever Elementary, site of the program this year, are alive with minds like his eager to learn.

In Jerrie Metz's pre-kindergarten class, 5-year-old Jose Coronel, who recently endured a hernia operation, plays house with his new-found friends. Today he plays the role of a brother, who earns his allowance washing dishes after a meal of beans and rice.

"Social skills are important at this age because these children move so much they don't have an opportunity to make many friends," Ms. Metz said.

In five years, the number of students who don't speak English has more than doubled in South Carolina schools as workers from Latin America and elsewhere flock to the state for jobs.

Some schools have asked incoming Hispanic students to prove they are in the United States legally, though schools are required by federal law to know whether they are legal immigrants.

Aiken County serves about 120 students, mostly Hispanic, in its English as a Second Language program. This year officials will hire four qualified instructors to teach the students.

In years past, tutors, who travel from school to school, have been used to provide intense English proficiency. The program's main goal is to mainstream the ESL children into the regular classroom.

Aiken County has offered the migrant education program for 20-plus years, but it's only been recently that it has gone from teaching Haitians to Hispanics. Federal funds, $40,000, funnelled through the state pay for the program.

"The children come here to learn," Ms. Metz said. "It's more enjoyable for me, too, because I don't have the hammer of testing over me or the administrative headaches. I can do what I love -- teaching."

Six-year-old Katherine Mata enjoys it, too.

She is one of the fastest learners in her first-grade class, always pushing herself beyond the limit. In less than three weeks, she is reading at an advanced level, can tell time and knows simple multiplication. The irony is Katherine's father speaks broken English, while her mother speaks none.

"I just made a 100 on my test," she said, flashing a snaggle-tooth grin. "My mama will be proud."