Anabal Ortiz-Chavolla, left, and Carolina Gomez were honored as director of the year and employee of the year at a Migrant Education Program conference. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – The bond that the Ontario School District’s migrant education program has formed with families is so strong, that employees of the program are frequently listed as emergency contacts on students’ forms.

The Ontario program serves about 850 students and has been hailed as a model for the 17 other programs in the state. Three Ontario employees and one student were honored recently at a conference in Salem.

“We are a team that is not afraid to mop floors, clean tables and cook,” said Anabel Ortiz-Chavolla, who received the 2019 director of the year award. “Everything we do is for the students and families.”

Ortiz-Chavolla has been director of the Ontario program for 10 years.

The migrant education program’s focus, she said, is to get migrant students performing at their grade level and to empower migrant families.

“Our job is for them not to be behind,” said Ortiz-Chavolla. “And to be ahead if possible.”

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It’s a diverse program, she added, serving kids from all backgrounds whose parents move for jobs in agriculture.

The program’s success is apparent in graduation rates – nearly 100% for migrant students.

School isn’t easy for a group of students who face unique challenges, said Carolina Gomez, program recruiter who was named employee of the year.

Her job is to track down students and families who are eligible for the program. This means Gomez has to be on the lookout, even scrolling through social media to find students who may benefit.

The program guides students and families and connects them to local resources.

For Gomez, her tasks can be as big as organizing funeral services for a student in the program who died or as small as going to the store to replace a student’s broken shoe before an event.

Gomez still receives messages from students who have graduated.

“You feel good about what you do every day,” said Gomez.

Born in Weiser, Gomez spent her youth migrating between Idaho and Mexico, many times unaccompanied. She grew up working in the fields. Every summer she worked, and she thought the other students in her class did too, she said.

She knows the challenge of trying to catch up in school when you are frequently on the road, or when tired from working in agriculture.

But it was working from sunup to long after sun down that convinced her she wanted to get an education.

“We were those kids,” said Ortiz-Chavolla, recalling her own childhood doing farmwork in Idaho and Texas.

“In our time it was taboo – nobody wanted people to know they were working in the fields,” said Gomez. “But now they’re proud to work in the fields.”

Gomez said students now will post photos of themselves doing farmwork as part of their senior slideshow at graduation.

Xochitl Fuhriman-Ebert, an English language development teacher at Ontario Middle School who received the advocate of the year award, also knows what her students face.

Named Oregon Teacher of the Year in 2000, Fuhriman-Ebert moved to Utah from Mexico in grade school and at first struggled with the language barrier, a challenge many of her migrant students endured.

“Her former students will tell you that she genuinely believed in them and inspired them to reach for the sky,” read Fuhriman-Ebert’s nominating letter.

Gomez and Ortiz-Chavolla say they know plenty of success stories.

Alejandra Arizmendi is one. Arizmendi received the Migrant Education Student of the Year award at the Salem conference. The 16-year-old works part-time while maintaining a 4.0 GPA and participating in math and science clubs. The Ontario High senior will be the first in her family to go to college. Arizmendi plans to study civil engineering at Boise State University next fall.

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: yadira@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

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