In the low bush wild blueberry fields of Washington County, there is important work to be done in the month of August. Families come from throughout the state, the country, and the continent to harvest the blueberries that make their way to grocery store shelves and kitchen refrigerators throughout the country. Once the harvest is done, they pack up and move once again, across school administrative unit (SAU), and sometimes country lines. The Maine Migrant Education Program (MEP) partners with the nonprofit organization Mano en Mano to provide migratory children and youth, and their families, with educational and support services. At Mano en Mano, the local MEP Regional Coordinators enroll migratory children and youth, conduct needs assessments, and create a service plan for each student, and, throughout the month of August, they operate the Blueberry Harvest School.
The Blueberry Harvest School (BHS) is a summer school for migrant children ages 3-13 designed to provide students with the opportunity to attend school while they are in Maine and may be missing school days and credits in their home states. It began operating over 30 years ago, when there was a large influx of migrant workers in Maine’s blueberry harvest in the 1970s. Migrant families travel to Maine from Mi’kmaq First Nation communities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; from “Eastern Stream” states such as Florida and Mississippi; and from within Maine, including Passamaquoddy communities in eastern Washington County and a Latino community in western Washington County. Some families complete the blueberry harvest in less than two weeks, while other families may stay for five weeks or longer. The goal of the BHS is to respond to the unique needs of each student through culturally responsive, project-based learning while preventing summer learning loss and compensating for school disruptions among students, helping to ensure that all students experiencing a migratory lifestyle reach challenging academic standards and graduate with a high school diploma (or complete the HiSET) that prepares them for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment.
In each classroom, students make progress toward academic success. Students take field trips weekly, experiencing educational opportunities throughout Maine. The oldest age group, 11- to 13-year-olds, recently had the opportunity to visit the University of Maine Orono’s Virtual Reality Center. During their visit, they were able to create and explore their own virtual reality rooms. Meanwhile, the 7- and 8-year-olds took a trip to the College of the Atlantic Museum to see dioramas. When they returned to the BHS, they created their own dioramas about animals they researched.
Stefan Fink, a Lead Teacher at the BHS says their favorite memory comes from a time when they and another teacher found monarch caterpillars outside their cabin. They brought them to school for the students to measure, take notes, and name them, providing the students with the opportunity to watch the life cycle of the butterfly. On the last day of school, the butterflies were ready to take flight, and the students sent them off together.
While the activities students complete in their time at the BHS is important, the staff will tell you that what really makes the BHS special is the culture and philosophy behind the learning, which allow many students to feel safe and comfortable in school for the first time. “Migrant education is disruptive, so we have to disrupt the cycle of learning loss,” Fink says. The BHS does this in several ways. For example, there are two teachers assigned to each classroom. School director Laura Thomas says that by having more than one teacher, it is easier to foster relationships between student and teacher, something many rural schools lack the capacity for.
The school takes a trauma informed response to teaching, helping to increase comfort levels and show students that migrating to Maine and attending school can be a safe space to learn. Part of how they do this, and part of why the staff love to work at the BHS, is through mirroring their student body in their staff. The teachers and students come from similar backgrounds and speak the same languages, making the students feel comfortable. Some of the teachers even went through the BHS themselves as children. This allows the teachers to meet and understand student needs at a greater level.
Mirroring the students in the staff is just one way that the BHS prioritizes cultural and language inclusion. There are 10 languages spoken at the BHS, and when you walk into the building, you can tell. Signs and books in the halls and in every classroom are in multiple different languages, helping students to feel comfortable. Through language access, the BHS is working to preserve and teach languages such as Spanish, English, Mik’maq, Haitian Creole, Korean, Passamaquoddy, Portuguese, French, Yoruba, and Nahuatl. Cornelia Francis, a TA at the BHS and a previous attendee herself, has been with the program for over 30 years. She says that sometimes, there are language and communication difficulties, but it is so important to give students an opportunity and a space to speak the languages that make them feel comfortable because it doesn’t just benefit the kids, but it helps keep the culture and languages alive as well.
Another important aspect of the BHS philosophy is the student-led social emotional learning component. This year, they hired an SEL coordinator, Meg Charest, who says that at the BHS, kids are the experts on their experiences. Charest says that in her role, she provides students with choices in how they want their problems to be solved because kids learn when they’re in charge. This “sit back and listen” approach helps kids feel seen, heard, and comfortable. While Charest integrates this strategy in her SEL work, teachers throughout the BHS implement this student-first idea as well. Francis says, “you need to learn the child before you teach them,” something that most teachers at the BHS agree with and do, building relationships prior to and while educating students, in line with the BHS philosophy.
All these facets of the BHS educational philosophy build upon one another to create an environment that both staff and students can be proud of. “This is what equity work looks like,” Fink says. Students routinely have exposure to cultural experiences and communities that allow them to feel protected and safe, which is evident. Fink loves when students share their first laugh at the BHS, ask for help, or share their hard work with parents. Each moment of pride and happiness in the walls of BHS, Fink says, helps to make a “tapestry of little moments” that show how effective the BHS is.
While the building may not be large, the impact of the BHS is. The staff build trust and connections with students, letting them feel comfortable in a place where historically, underrepresented migratory students haven’t been allowed to be happy or safe. They support language access and facilitate a culture of constant learning, helping to disrupt the cycle of learning loss. The work of the BHS, while it starts in migrant labor, goes far beyond it, supporting culturally sustainable traditions, allowing students and their families to feel protected and safe.