This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.
California's Kern County is an American agricultural giant whose soil produced more than $6 billion worth of grapes, almonds and other farm products last year. Yet some of its workers' children, after being disciplined for relatively minor offenses, are getting zero education.
Last July, the Center for Public Integrity and KQED radio in California reported that many of the hundreds of disciplined kids who are ousted from regular Kern schools every year are transferred to alternative county-run schools -- and then put on independent study at home with only once-a-week minimum mandatory visits with teachers.
Independent study may be the only option for students who live miles away from an alternative school and have no way to get there on a daily basis. Unhappy parents said they fear this arrangement is giving their kids a meager education, and could be increasing their chances of getting into more serious trouble and failing at school. Even getting the kids to those once-a-week teacher meetings requires some parents to skip work and lose wages.
Now it turns out that there's an uncounted population of ousted students who aren't even getting the benefit of an independent study program. Parents of these students say they can't afford or even ask permission to skip work that one day a week needed to drive the kids to alternative schools, as part of independent study requirements.
And so these students -- no one knows exactly how many -- are languishing at home, with no schooling at all in this rural area north of Los Angeles. Kern is one of the top five most productive farm counties in the nation. But there's no school bus provided or reliable, supervised public transportation to ferry these re-assigned kids on their journeys to alternative campuses far away. Schools say, legally, it's up to parents to get kids to campuses.
But Kern High School District trustees, under increasing pressure to address the situation, have now asked district staff members to look into whether anything might be done to help these families.
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An 'impossible' situation
One Kern parent, immigrant farmworker Mario Ramirez of the town of Arvin, told the Center he resorted to sending his expelled 14-year-old daughter to Mexico to live with relatives last December just so she could be in a classroom for a few months during her year-long expulsion period from her hometown school.
"They've put me in an impossible situation," Ramirez said, in Spanish, referring to Arvin High School and county school officials. His daughter is back from Mexico, but not back in school this fall. Arvin High won't let her enroll at least until January, according to the teen's expulsion plan. And Ramirez and his working wife, also a field worker, still can't find a way to get their daughter to an alternative school 20 miles away.
"I'm getting more behind," Ramirez's daughter said. She admits she made mistakes, but says wants to study.
The Center has spoken to two other working families in Arvin whose kids have been out of school in Kern for months. Community organizers are knocking on doors in Arvin and other small towns to see if they can find other kids stuck at home.
"It's a different reality for these farmworker parents. They can't get time off to drive kids," said Erika Brooks of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, a Kern group that works with field laborers' families.
Employing zero-tolerance policies, Kern County's schools, as the Center previously reported in 2011, have been expelling students from the county's various school districts at a rate higher than anywhere else in California.
During both the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years, Kern expelled more kids, in raw numbers, than all the schools combined in Los Angeles County, which has nine times the number of pupils, according to data collected by the state.
Kern High School District officials, whose district is responsible for most of the removals in the county, now say that number is falling. The district's expulsions totaled 1,095 kids for the 2011-2012 school year, about a 40 percent decline from the previous year, district data obtained by the Center showed. Because some schools are using new discipline methods and policies, officials said they predict expulsions for the 2012-2013 school year will have dropped further and could come in at around 300, once final statistics are analyzed by state education officials.
But parents remain concerned, complaining not just of formal expulsions, but also of "involuntary transfers" of students -- which are not reported to state officials -- and other transfers due to truancy problems.
California not only requires that parents ensure children under 18 be in school, it also mandates that students who are expelled or otherwise removed from regular school still receive an education to help them get back on track and prevent them from dropping out.
State legislators and businesses say they're worried about the implications of an estimated 73 percent graduation rate among Latino kids -- a demographic that now represents about half the state's students -- compared to an 86 percent rate for white kids.
Ramirez said his daughter was removed from Arvin High School last December for a year because she allegedly had paraphernalia in her backpack that could be used to smoke marijuana -- an infraction that does not require expulsion of a student. His daughter said she'd been suspended before for refusing to pick up trash.
When the teen was kicked out of Arvin High, Ramirez said he explained to Arvin and county school staff that he only has one car, and that both parents work.
"They told me it was my problem to get her to school," he told the Center.
The only offer of help, he said, came in the form of passes for a series of public buses his daughter would have to ride, unsupervised, with multiple transfers in various towns and long waits alone on streets in unsafe urban areas in Bakersfield, the city where her assigned alternative school is located. That scared Ramirez and seemed, he said, a poor parental choice to make for a 14-year-old.
The only temporary fix Ramirez could think of was school in Mexico for part of last spring semester.
The son of Virginia Menchu, another Arvin resident, hasn't set foot in any school since last January after he was expelled for allegedly getting into a second fight at age 16. He's now 17.
His working parents can't get their son to an alternative school 20 miles away either, not even once a week, Menchu said.
"I want to graduate. I don't want to work in the fields like my parents," Menchu's son told the Center.
It's the same story for Martha Cisneros' son, who was 14 when she signed an "involuntary transfer" agreement last spring after her son was accused of infractions. She said she didn't understand the agreement.
Pleas for help
On Sept. 3, the three parents appeared at a Kern High School Board of Trustees meeting to ask for help. They were accompanied by bilingual representatives from the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
The trustees, Dolores Huerta Foundation organizer Ericka Brooks told the Center, informed the parents that they should go to the district office and fill out the proper paperwork and submit it to request a "closed session" with trustees to discuss possible solutions confidentially.
Kern High School District board president Bryan Batey confirmed this, and told the Center he's willing to call a special meeting if the parents make such a request. He said he is aware that first-generation immigrant parents have trouble navigating through the school governance system.
Mike Zulfa, the high school district's assistant superintendent of instruction, told the Center in an email that the district "hopes to work with the other involved agencies to address this transportation problem. We are in the 'brainstorming' phase of addressing this challenge."
Batey thought that perhaps parents could organize carpools to take kids to distant alternative schools if they could find drivers they trust.
While many parents say they'd rather see kids kept in regular schools, Batey defended educators' decisions to follow rules that spell out disciplinary steps that can culminate in expulsion.
Arvin High School, he said, has had problems with fights among students that are rooted in gang rivalries. A student recently stabbed another student in the leg, prompting cries for more security.
Batey said he can't discuss individual cases. But in response to Ramirez's daughter's story, the trustee said he believed she likely had a "checkered" record that earned her an expulsion.
At forums and in interviews, a number of parents in Arvin and other Kern communities have asserted that some of their children have been unfairly accused of infractions, including drug use -- even when drug tests came back negative. They also complained of being confounded and intimidated by expulsion hearings.
In 2011-2012, Arvin High, which is 95 percent Latino, expelled 56 students, mostly for offenses that are not among those that require expulsion. For example, 14 expulsions were for alleged fights; 17 for "controlled substances," including alcohol; 13 were for students creating a hostile atmosphere or making threats.
Brooks of the Dolores Huerta Foundation said a local movement is growing to urge that more schools adopt counseling intervention programs, "positive behavior" reinforcement and other techniques that have proved helpful at engaging students, improving conduct and keeping them in school.
The foundation is also organizing workshops for parents to help them learn discipline methods to use at home and ways to get kids engaged in school.
As the Center's July story explained, some California educators say independent study can be an effective method to help kids who act out or have personal problems move on to graduate, including older teens who work or have babies or who are motivated but don't function well in a classroom.
In Kern's neighboring Fresno County, however, a charter school called New Millenium lost its charter this year in part because it was accused of relying heavily on independent study to try to educate kids who had been expelled from regular schools and at times struggling academically. A Fresno County Grand Jury report said that the charter's students "do not fit the profile" of "motivated" students the California Department of Education advises can thrive on independent study.
In Kern, county community school officials acknowledged that many parents are choosing independent study as a "last resort" only because they can't take their children to alternative county schools on a daily basis.
One farmworker mom of a 13-year-old juggled field work and a night job in a packing shed so she could comply with the requirement to get her son to school one day a week to see a teacher 40 miles away. An Arvin vineyard worker, more senior than other workers, said he missed one day of work every week during last spring semester to drive his son to his meeting with a teacher 20 miles away.
Kern officials told the Center that more than 2,730 high school students and more than 300 middle-school age kids participated in independent study during the last academic year while enrolled at Kern's nine county community schools. That's more than two-thirds of the 4,460 students enrolled in that one county's system.
The Center went directly to Kern officials to get the data after the California Department of Education said it does not collect the raw numbers of kids placed on independent study in the state's more than 75 county community schools -- which serve, on average, about 43,000 kids a year.
The Center subsequently discovered that the state does collect such numbers. But because they are collected in early October, the figures' accuracy is questionable. Kids flow into these alternative schools in greater numbers as the school year progresses.
The state's records, for example, showed that 788 high school students enrolled at Kern's county community schools participated in independent study during the 2011-2012 school year, just a fraction of what Kern officials told the Center.
The state doesn't track how students enrolled in these alternative community schools fare when, or if, they return to regular schools after a stint in the alternative facilities.