Adams State graduate gives back as head of Migrant Education program

(02-11-2016)

With a clear recollection of her own struggles as a migrant student trying to learn English and adapt to American culture, Esmeralda (Gonzalez) Martinez works to mitigate those challenges for current migrant students. She received bachelor's and master's degrees from Adams State University in 1997 and 2001, respectively. As director of the San Luis Valley BOCES Migrant Education Program, she says she is in an ideal position to do the most good for others.

"I am only successful if I can make a difference for others," she said. "I experienced obstacles myself as a migrant student, and now I can create better opportunities and improve the systems to support migrant families."

Her family moved from Mexico to the San Luis Valley when she was in fifth grade. To make ends meet, she and her seven siblings joined their parents in the fields as soon as the school year ended each spring. "We weeded the long fields of spinach, bending all day under the sun, all summer. My back still reminds me of the pain," she said. She remembers times during potato harvest when her parents wouldn't finish work until 1 a.m. "My mother always told us, 'I want you to be someone, to get an education.' All those experiences were blessings. I learned to work hard and get an education, so I would not have to endure those conditions. I feel blessed to have a job where I can follow my passion and make a difference for migrant students."

After earning her B.A. from Adams State in secondary education-Spanish, Martinez taught English language learners in grades K-2 in the Alamosa School District for 16 years. In 2001, she completed Adams State's M.A. in education with an endorsement in culturally and linguistically diverse education; she also holds endorsements for reading and principal licensure.

"Adams State has given me a lot of opportunities. I see myself as a lifelong learner," Martinez said. "My mother always said she wanted a doctor in the family, so maybe a Ph.D. is next for me." In addition to working full time, the mother of four also serves on the board of the Sierra Grande High School Foundation and was recently elected to the district's school board. Four of her siblings are also educators, including her brother Francisco Gonzalez, an assistant professor in ASU's Teacher Education Department.

A bridge to services

Martinez is in her third year overseeing the Migrant Education Program for 23 southern Colorado school districts through the SLV and San Juan BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services). "Migrant education is a bridge to connect families with the school districts and make them aware of other community resources. Our responsibility is to provide them with as much information and opportunities as possible, to help them make the best educational decisions," she said.

The program serves children up to age 22 who must change school districts as a result of their parents' seasonal or temporary work in agriculture or fishing. Students benefit from supplemental educational services, tutoring, and leadership activities. Migrant Education Night events expose families to information and resources addressing such issues as housing, health care, and immigration.

The program operates year long, with the student population reaching up to 640 in the spring, when farms begin planting. Previously, she noted, most migrant families were of Mexican background, but the demographics are changing to include more from Central America. "We used to primarily serve Spanish speakers, but now we also have students who speak Quanjobal, Cora, Navajo, English, and other languages. All of our migrant families believe in and support education. That is common across the board."

The Migrant Education program helps integrate families into the larger community at all levels. Each holiday season, local agencies and businesses provide funding or gifts through the Adopt-a-Migrant Family program, which grown over the last three years, thanks to the community support.

Partnerships with Adams State

The Migrant Education Program has partnered with the CAMP (College Assistance Migrant Program) at Adams State University, as well as with the Migrant Seasonal Head Start. "This partnership allows for leveraging resources, as well as streamlined opportunities for migrant students and families. Collaboration efforts create consistency of services for students from early age and up to college," Martinez said.

She is also proud of a new program begun this semester, a civics and government course designed to help high school students understand how local, state, and national government function. BOCES transports students to Adams State on given weekends for the course, for which they may earn three college credits. The group will tour the capitol in Denver, and ten students will have the opportunity to visit Washington, D.C.

Working with Adams State's Title V STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), Martinez developed a week-long Migrant STEM Academy. Thirty students from across the state will participate, funded by the Colorado Office of Migrant Education. Martinez said the program will mirror ASU's Summer STEM Academy, created with federal Title V funding for Hispanic Serving Institutions. This program was a pilot last year, a three-day academy; one of the participating migrant students has decided to attend ASU and pursue a STEM career.

By Julie Waechter