SRJC's Adelante fosters migrant students' passion for academics

By Montse Vega's count, she has lived in five different Sonoma County cities since she was 9.

Now heading into her sophomore year at Healdsburg High School, she has turned to the Adelante Migrant Education summer program to get her grades and focus back on track.

"At first I was like, 'Ugh, summer school, it's going to ruin my summer.' But it's been fun," she said.

Now in its 32nd year, the federally funded, all-day, six-week program at Santa Rosa Junior College is restricted to children of migrant workers who have moved across school district boundaries at least once in the past three years.

Some students fit the bill with ease.

Angelica Lezama, who will be a junior at El Molino High School in the fall, has lived in Guerneville, Sebastopol, Graton and Santa Rosa as her dad has taken jobs in the vineyards. For years, Lezama's aunt has driven her to school so that she and her three siblings could have a consistent educational experience.

Lezama has a 3.8 grade-point average at El Molino and is not working on credit recovery like many of Adelante's nearly 320 participants. Lezama said she wanted to keep her mind working over the summer to be better ready for her crucial junior year on the Forestville campus.

"I just want to learn more. I want to be prepared for college, for everything," she said.

About 200 Latino adults and children turned out for Adelante's "Noche de padres" -- parents' night -- Thursday evening at an outdoor stage on the Santa Rosa Junior College campus, featuring speeches, skits, dances and poems by students.

Mayra Pallais of Santa Rosa said Adelante had transformed her son, Carlos, 18.

"He has become more active and less shy," she said in Spanish through a translator. "And he's better at public speaking."

Carlos, a senior at Elsie Allen High, said the program "changed everything about me." He gave a speech Thursday night.

Next summer, Mayra Pallais hopes to see her younger son, Alejandro, 10, participate.

The family, who emigrated from Guatemala four years ago, values education, Pallais said. "It's the first thing; the most important."

SRJC President Frank Chong opened the ceremony, noting that his parents were immigrants who worked in restaurants and bakeries to send him to college.

Speaking of Adelante participants, Chong said: "My hope and dream is that they will one day become college students here."

Adelante provides course options including computer science, English, math, U.S. and world history and biology for high schoolers as well as science, English and math for seventh- and eighth-graders.

The program costs about $70,000 to run for six weeks and is funded by the federal government. SRJC, where the students show up Monday through Friday at 8:30 a.m. and don't leave until after 3 p.m., kicks in $18,000, said Elaine Pearson, associate director of the migrant education program covering Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Del Norte and Humboldt counties.

"It's hard enough to learn in a second language, let alone have a two-month (summer) gap," she said. "Part of it is the language, and we want them to keep moving forward academically."

Teacher Roberto Ramirez has been with Adelante since its inception in Sonoma County more than three decades ago. Retired from his regular teaching position, he said he relishes the chance to work with students and their unique needs.

"When you are at the bottom academically or financially, I believe it's easy to stay down there because the brain finds excuses and it is satisfied with these excuses," he said. "That is the difficulty of getting out."

Staff Writer Guy Kovner contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at

She can be reached at 526-8671 or

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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