Pedro Delgado, a ninth-grader at Oak Crest Junior High School in Encinitas, had a history of missing classes because of health problems, but when some unexplained absences cropped up this year, Karen Meier became suspicious.
Meier, Delgado's "teacher advocate" in a program started this fall by the San Dieguito Union High School District, found that Delgado's migrant worker parents had been keeping him home from school to help translate during meetings with an attorney.
She intervened, reminding Delgado of the importance of attending school consistently--and noting that his language skills probably weren't all that helpful in a complicated legal situation.
Meier, who describes herself as "kind of an older sister" to Delgado, is one of a corps of teachers who have volunteered to form a safety net for children of migrant workers in three San Dieguito district schools this fall.
Meier and her colleagues are trying to keep migrant children--who have the highest dropout rate of any U.S. students besides American Indians--in school by easing their travels through an unfamiliar and sometimes intimidating educational system.
"It's kind of like a Big Brother-type program," said Mark Embree, an English teacher and teacher advocate at San Dieguito High School. "You just take an interest in them. They're not real outgoing, so they're not going to come up and ask you for help. So you have to go up and ask them if they need help."
Many teachers understand the more obvious burdens of being a migrant student: ever-present language difficulties and the embarrassment they cause; constant mobility, and the pressure to work in the fields to support their families.
Less obvious are small obstacles that can become immense frustrations to migrant students who do not know how to work the system to their advantage, officials said.
Most are reluctant to draw attention to themselves by asking a teacher to repeat a concept they do not understand. Many do not know who to contact for specific problems or needs--how to arrange for a special test or where to find information about community colleges, for example.
"The kid does not understand. And because school is so awesome, he would find it extra-super hard to to say 'I don't understand, and could you explain it again?' " said Jean Moreno, a teacher and guidance counselor at Oak Crest.
And while American students may have parents with few reservations about calling teachers and principals when problems arise, migrant workers tend to be as awed by the school as their children are.
"Part of the Mexican culture is a great respect for the school and the school system to the point of not questioning it," said Susan Morse, coordinator of the interstate migrant secondary team run by the U.S. government. "If the maestro says it's right, it must be right."
"The dictum at home is you respect the teacher," Moreno said. "If you get in trouble at school, you're in twice as much trouble at home. Because the teacher is God."
Those pressures, added to the heavier burdens of poverty and mobility, force most migrant students out of the hostile school environment and into the fields with their families, officials said.
Nationwide, the average migrant student attends three schools a year, and 75% to 90% of migrant students drop out of school before earning a diploma, Morse said. Studies show that 99% of youths who are two years older than their classmates drop out, she said.
In San Diego County, about 40% of the estimated 4,000 migrant students drop out each year, said Frank Ludovina, coordinator of migrant education for the county's Office of Education. The comparatively low dropout rate is due to the county's close attention to the problems of migrant secondary students, he said.
The teacher advocates are intended to provide the support that may be crucial to keeping a migrant student in school. Because they are assigned only four students each at the high school and two students each at the junior high schools, the teachers are able to do the little things that guidance counselors inundated with 300 or 400 students cannot.
When one of Embree's students had no idea how to find a typewriter to type a report, Embree found him one in San Dieguito's business department. He helped a student check out books from the school library and organize a report. He tutored another in math at 6:30 a.m., before school began each day.
Others consider themselves the students' friends, sharing common interests as a way of promoting enthusiasm for school. John Close, a former Naval aviator now teaching math and physics at San Dieguito High, has befriended a student who is interested in Naval ROTC. John Brennan, a social studies teacher at the same school, is helping sophomore Gloria Ramirez develop her basketball skills.
"There's enough people out there that are overly concerned and are telling them what to do and what not to do," Brennan said. "I think they need to relate to a teacher as a human being."
Others, however, admit that they are not keeping up with the students because they have little time to work with them or because the students seem uninterested in their help. Several teachers said that without a formal system that fosters regular contact with their students, they don't carry through with their assignments.
Since a discussion with a student in September, math teacher Gail Twohy has not been involved with her four migrant students at San Dieguito High.
"I see them on campus and say 'hello' and that's it," she said "My few are doing fine as far as I know . . . They're not volunteering and I'm not prying.
"I haven't followed through. Is that awful?"
Said Embree: "Myself, I have to make an extra effort to go out and find (a student). If I have something else going or I have paper work to do, I might not get there."
The teacher advocate program grew from a small project this summer under which all 57 migrant students in the district were given interest inventory tests that counselors explained to them. The counselors wrote personal notes in their records which may help teachers in efforts to communicate with the students. Some were escorted to the library to get library cards.
"It's a self-esteem building exercise--someone sitting down and showing attention," said Linda Stetson, coordinator of the bilingual and gifted education programs for the San Dieguito district, who set up the teacher advocate program.
No formal assessment of the program has been made yet and teachers differ on the effect they are having.
"I think it's probably a subtle difference. I don't think it's making an earth-shaking difference," Close said. He believes that he has more influence on the students in his classes whom he sees every day.
"I think that what I've done with (Pedro) has helped," Meier countered. "I think also that he's feeling more comfortable because his English has improved."