Northern Illinois University has been awarded a contract by the Illinois State Board of Education to coordinate the statewide Migrant Education Program. The $1.67 million contract runs from Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, to Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Susana Das Neves, who is completing her doctorate in adult education with a research focus on providing educational supports to Latino families, will serve as the director of Illinois Migrant Education Services at NIU. Das Neves also brings to the position many years of experience as a college counselor, administrator and academic advisor specializing in working with bilingual and Latino students and families.
“We’re very excited that NIU received this contract because, as an institution of higher education, we have a lot of resources available not only to support migrant students and families throughout their K-12 education but also to provide college and career readiness initiatives,” says Das Neves. “I’m looking forward to working with many experienced staff members from the Migrant Education Program to build on the excellent work they have been doing. The NIU Center for P-20 Engagement has been providing local programming and supports to migrant students in the Rochelle community for three years. With this contract, we’ll be able to offer high-quality supports to meet the needs of migrant children and families across the state of Illinois.”
The Illinois Migrant Education Program (MEP) is a federally funded program of the Illinois State Board of Education designed to provide high-quality educational services and programs to migrant children and families. In particular, the program aims to help migrant children overcome educational barriers caused by repeated moves, especially moves among different states. The Migrant Education Program works in coordination with school districts and offers comprehensive summer school programs to allow students to catch up and meet academic standards and graduation requirements in their home states.
According to Das Neves, while some of the Illinois MEP locations have year-round programming, the Migrant Education Program focuses mainly on providing schooling and other services during the summer months.
“In summer, migrant parents are usually in the fields working, so during that time, the children come to summer school programming. Because their parents are seasonal workers who move to find farm work, oftentimes the children are pulled out before the school year is finished, and they may return after school starts. The summer program helps students get back on track, make up for any days of school they missed and get ready for the next school year. Additionally, the program also has a parent-engagement component to assist parents in supporting their children’s academic success.”
Das Neves first became involved with assisting migrant farm workers and their families in the mid-1990s while she was completing her master’s degree at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She worked with migrant families through a grant with the Highlander Center, which at the time, provided services for seasonal workers employed in the tomato, tobacco and other agricultural industries in the area.
After coming to NIU in 1996, Das Neves continued to work informally with migrant families while working as a bilingual counselor for the CHANCE Program, later as assistant director of the NIU Latino Resource Center and finally, as an advisor in the Academic Advising Center. Das Neves has also been invited to give presentations at MEP pre-service workshops for teachers and statewide conferences to highlight college preparation at all grade levels and to emphasize the importance of parent engagement.
Das Neves also partnered with the Rochelle Migrant Education Program to give presentations in Spanish to parents on how to help their children transition to post-secondary education, and she worked with the NIU Admissions Office and other departments to offer “night owl” college visits for migrant high school students, which continue to this day.
“Because older kids are working in the fields alongside their parents, they can’t come for a traditional college visit during the day,” says Das Neves. “Instead, in the evening, once they’re done in the fields, they come to NIU for a Night Owl visit, including dinner in one of our dining halls and a tour of a residence hall and the university campus. They also learn about the college admission process and how to choose and prepare for college. The students really appreciate getting this exposure to a college campus.”
As part of her dissertation research, Das Neves has spent the past several years developing a Parent University (Universidad para Padres) program in DeKalb County. This community outreach program, supported by the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement, empowers mothers, fathers and grandparents to take active roles in their own personal growth and their children’s academic success. Parent University takes a holistic approach that addresses the parents’ personal development and learning, their relationship with their children and finally, their relationship with the children’s schools. The parents meet weekly at DeKalb High School to discuss topics ranging from computer literacy to leadership development, health and how to navigate the education system. The parents take a leadership role, helping to choose topics and giving presentations in English and Spanish at regional and state conferences.
Das Neves’s approach to migrant education services focuses on tailoring programs to the particular needs and schedules of migrant families. One of her goals as director of Migrant Education Services will be to expand some of the initiatives that have been successful at the Rochelle MEP location, including the night owl college visits and Parent University, and to offer them throughout the state. She’s looking forward to partnering with community colleges and universities near each of the state’s seven MEP locations and to working closely with staff in each local program to become familiar with the needs and resources of each community.
“We might need to try a few things and see what works because each population, each community is different,” she says.
Das Neves emphasizes that one of her overarching goals is to support a college-going culture for everyone, including the youth in the migrant education program and the out-of-school youth population.
“A key component of this program is parent engagement – helping parents understand the best ways to take advantage of available resources to support their children’s educational opportunities,” says Das Neves. “The parents all want the best for their children. Once families realize all the resources that are available, they learn that it’s not as hard as they thought it would be to take advantage of those resources and help their children reach personal and academic goals.”
Das Neves says returning to one of her earlier passions of helping migrant families and children is very rewarding for her. “Having the opportunity to work full time with this population again is very special,” she says. “When I started working with migrant families and going to trainings and meetings in Tennessee, I never thought this would eventually become a full-time job. I’m very happy to be coming back full circle, and I’m very proud of NIU for being selected to administer this contract.”
Illinois Migrant Education Services at NIU is housed under the NIU Center for P-20 Engagement in the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development. “I’m proud to work with the wonderful people at the P-20 Center and with Dr. Anne Kaplan, vice president of the division,” says Das Neves. “I couldn’t ask for better mentors!”