First-grade teacher Alvato Centeno reads a story to students during migrant summer school at Scott Elementary. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A dozen third-graders stepped in two lines, moving one hand back and forth as if holding a shaker.

“Turn!” yelled teacher Antonio de los Santos as the students pivoted, then paired off into a single line, girls holding hands with boys.

“At first they didn’t want to hold hands. Now they’re okay,” said Amanda Johnston, one of the program leads for Salem-Keizer’s elementary migrant summer school.

The kids danced to a traditional Mexican indigenous melody called xochipitzahuatl, which honors the earth before maize harvest.

It’s a cultural activity woven into a summer school program for Salem-Keizer migrant children where students blend reading and math exercises with learning about Mexican culture, history and geography.

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Antonio de los Santos leads third-grade students in a traditional Mayan dance during migrant summer school at Scott Elementary. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Migrant students have parents who have moved between school districts in the past three years to find work in agriculture. In many smaller Oregon school districts in agricultural areas, one-quarter or more of students are migrants.

About 1,500 migrant students attended Salem-Keizer schools last year. Some moved within Oregon. Others come from further away.

“We get a lot of California families coming up because of the crops,” said Erica Anderson, the district’s migrant program coordinator.

With frequent moves and gaps in schooling, it’s easy for migrant students to fall behind in school. Districts get federal funding for programs to help migrant students, including summer school opportunities.

Salem-Keizer’s summer program works to fight that trend over four weeks of summer classes for kids in preschool through graduation.

Elementary school is the largest migrant program, with 300 students in class at Scott Elementary. The district gets more applications from teachers and aides who want to work than they have slots available, said Martha Ochoa, a migrant program associate.

In addition to teachers and classroom aides, Western Oregon University education students work in classrooms. They’re part of a district partnership with the university to train bilingual Spanish-English teachers from Salem and receive discounted tuition in exchange for agreeing to work in local schools after graduation.

Classes focus on reading and math, taught mostly in Spanish with blocks in English during the day. Many students are comfortable in both languages.

In a preschool classroom, students drew fantastical scenes featuring unicorns and princesses as their teacher helped them write what was happening below each illustration.

In kindergarten, students worked to write a short story based on four pictures, yelling out suggestions as teacher Yesenia Angulo called on them.

“What are we missing?” she asked after writing an opening sentence.

“Punto final!” the whole class shouted – a period.

Kindergarten students in Yesenia Angulo's migrant summer school class participate in a reading activity. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Older grades focused on the pieces of a story – a beginning, middle and end – through reading picture or chapter books.

To lead cultural activities, the district brings in three Mexican teachers for the program. They teach songs in indigenous Mayan languages, help students make pinatas and other crafts, and lead activities like the dance de los Santos was patiently teaching the group.

“A lot of them are from different parts of Mexico,” Johnston said. Many families come from the central Mexican states of Jalisco and Michoacán, part of a fertile valley which grows similar crops to the mid-Willamette. Others are from states further south, like Oaxaca.

The half-hour of culture each day gives them a chance to learn about their heritage and perform for their parents at the end of the program.

In middle school, students attend several class periods during the day, including English, math, science and art.

Art teacher Brenda Dobbins slides a ring made of a recycled seltzer can onto the finger of Leslie Villaseñor, a 6th grade student at Leslie Middle School, during art class at migrant summer school. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

During the third week of the program, groups worked with West Salem High School art teacher Brenda Dobbins to make book covers for their English class, mixing colorful prints and decorative insects carved out of old soda cans.

As they completed steps in their projects, they lined up for Dobbins’ evaluation.

“Nice! That was an excellent choice,” she said to one student displaying an aluminum grasshopper.

“That turned out beautiful,” she told another.

A middle school student's printed book cover, made during art class at migrant summer school. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Migrant high school students have a more fluid program, with morning classes and an afternoon focused on career exploration.

About 30 students signed up this year, though another 100 migrant high school students are doing other summer district programs.

Some focus on credit recovery, making up failed classes or shooting for higher grades. Others use the time to get ahead by taking classes like health online, teacher Randy Bertsch said.

The high school program is at Chemeketa Community College so students can get hands-on practice with everything from putting on firefighting gear to graphic design and robotics.

Bertsch, a math teacher at North Salem High School, taught migrant middle school for eight years before applying for the summer high school program.

“The kids here really believe that education can help them improve their station,” he said. “It’s a real sacrifice for them to be here because they’re giving up money.”

Many work to contribute to household expenses, he said.

Alondra Gonzalez tightens her mask while gearing up during a firefighting class (Anna CK Smith/Special to Salem Reporter)

Kimberly Garay, a senior at North Salem, enjoyed the law enforcement class best.

“They showed us how to defend ourselves,” she said.

Her family moved to the Salem area from California about two years ago. Without summer school, she’d be working in the fields picking berries with her parents.

But they were willing to forgo her earnings for the extra class time.

“They like it. They think I have more chances,” she said.

Have a story idea? Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.