By Mareesa Nicosia
13 September 2015
Five Points, California (The Atlantic) – It’s 7:50 on a hot, dry August morning when the buses rumble past a barren field— normally filled with broccoli this time of year — and creak to a stop in front of a flat-topped school, dust blooming up from under their wheels.
Children spill out, the older ones eager to greet familiar teachers. Parents and shy kindergartners congregate around the superintendent and the principal, Baldomero (“Baldo”) Hernandez, who pats shoulders and shakes hands, bending down to welcome the smallest students, like a pastor whose flock has finally returned.
It’s the first day of school at Westside Elementary and Hernandez counts fewer kids than ever climbing off the buses. The buzz of “¿Buenos días?” and “¿Cómo estás?” breaks the yawning stillness that has settled in this stretch of dusty farming country in the San Joaquin Valley. The 27,000-square-mile region stretches from Sacramento to Bakersfield and lies within the larger Central Valley, the epicenter of California’s four-year drought.
If the drought persists, Hernandez knows that some of his students — mostly poor, Hispanic children whose immigrant parents work the land —won’t stay through the end of the year. Many of the youngest ones, he worries, won’t be around to graduate from eighth grade and go on to a nearby feeder high school. As crops dry up, families are forced to move in search of jobs and housing. Families who do choose to stay double up in cramped bedrooms or sleep on couches in relatives’ homes, praying for rain and a return to work.
“Drought is like a cancer,” Hernandez tells me. “It kills you slowly.”
Enrollment in his tiny district is down 14 percent from four years ago, to 230 students, which translates into hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost state aid — on top of years of funding cutbacks statewide. Similar double-digit enrollment declines can be found in other small, rural school districts throughout the valley, including the Pleasant View school district in Tulare County, where more than half the migrant student population has left in only three years.
The Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified district, further north, has lost 120 of its 2,400 students in the last two years, largely due to parents’ job moves. In larger districts where enrollment hasn’t yet changed dramatically, educators say they are starting to brace for the worst. If an El Niño doesn’t drench the region this winter (which could set off a host of separate problems, like flooding and mudslides), they expect to see families leave en masse for Sacramento, Washington, or Oregon, or to return to Mexico.
Beyond the slow-motion emigration, the daily routines of the students, teachers, and staff who remain have been upended. In Pleasant View, the superintendent spent all spring and summer doubling as a construction manager, overseeing the drilling of a new well so his school would have a reliable water source.
A school in East Porterville, one of the most deeply affected areas in the state, now offers daily showers and bottled water for students without running water at home. Teachers are on constant alert for pupils who’ve lost focus and confidence; they’re humiliated to be wearing dirty clothes in class and anxious about the bad news that might greet them when they get home. Friends disappear without warning. [more]